Innovation moves incrementally in the highly safety-conscious aviation industry. For example, smoking on planes has been banned for nearly 30 years, but new aircraft are still built with ashtrays in the toilets just in case passengers cannot resist the urge to light up: at least they still have somewhere to dispose of their cigarette butt in the safest manner possible.
Despite this cautious-first approach, the industry is not immune to great leaps in technology and performance. In 2016 the famous Solar Impulse aircraft made headlines around the world when it completed a circumnavigation of the globe using only solar power and electric batteries.
This zero-fuel achievement was deemed at the time to be an example of how various industries can transform and evolve provided a progressive mindset is lodged in place. Solar Impulse’s pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg were careful not to state outright that their achievement could be a gateway for fuel-free flight, but following their successful mission Piccard remarked that electric commercial flights could indeed be a reality within a decade.
“In nine years and eight months, you’ll have 50 people traveling short-haul on electric planes,” Piccard told the International Air Transport Association (IATA) last year. “Why nine years and eight months? Because since four months I’ve been saying it will be ten years. It will happen.”
And U.K.-based low-cost airline easyJet has announced this week that it is working closely with U.S. firm Wright Electric to develop a battery-powered aircraft that it believes can be in commercial operation within a decade.
easyJet says that the electric plane would be suitable for journeys of under two hours, with a range of 335 miles. This would account for one-fifth of the journeys currently undertaken by easyJet, and would mean a quick hop from London to Paris, for example, would be completely fossil fuel-free.
easyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall said that the aerospace industry is eager to follow the lead of the automotive industry in transitioning away from fossil fuels. “For the first time in my career I can envisage a future without jet fuel, and we are excited to be part of it,” said McCall. “It is now more a matter of when, not if, a short-haul electric plane will fly.”
Wright Electric has already built a two-seater electric prototype, and hopes to expand this model to the size of a commercial aircraft capable of carrying 120 passengers over the next few years. The company claims that a typical electric aircraft of that size will be 50% quieter and 10% cheaper to buy and operate.
The company was founded in 2016 by a team of aerospace engineers and battery chemists with experience drawn from Cessna, Boeing and Nasa. “Partnering with easyJet is a powerful validation of our work,” said Wright Electric chief executive Jeffrey Engler. “Their insights have been invaluable as we look to commercialize our electric aircraft for the large and growing short-haul flight markets.”
Peter Duffy, easyJet’s CCO, added: ““You’re seeing cities and countries starting to talk about banning diesel combustion engines. That would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. As technology moves on, attitudes shift, ambitions change and you see opportunities you didn’t see. This is genuinely exciting.”
It is unclear yet what type of battery chemistry will be used, or where the batteries will be produced and how they will be charged. There is a strong likelihood that solar panels could be installed at hangars where the electric planes are kept, although early illustrations of the aircraft suggest that there will be no PV on the actual planes themselves.