Blue sky thinking

Could air travel ever go electric?

With most land-based forms of transport making the switch to electric, there’s only one way left to go and that’s up.

25 September, 2020

Making air travel electric throws up many challenges, with the biggest being the sheer weight of batteries needed to for long-haul flights 

While cars and trains are moving towards greener, electric power, emissions from air travel once the aviation industry gets back in the air, are expected to increase a massive sevenfold by 2050. 

Of course there are little things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint when flying – offset your emissions, choose a green airline, fly economy, or simply fly less. But, if we want big green sky solutions, we need blue sky thinking, and, fortunately, there’s plenty of that happening right now.

Making air travel electric throws up many challenges, with the biggest one being that the batteries needed to power long-haul flights would need to be so heavy that the plane would never get off the ground. A minor stumbling block to say the least. But, with two billion air tickets sold for flights under 800 kilometres annually, the potential for short-haul journeys to go green is much more optimistic. 

Harbour Air is the largest seaplane airline in North America, flying 500,000 passengers on 30,000 commercial flights in a fleet of 40 propeller-driven seaplanes each year. Based in Vancouver, flights on Harbour Air transport passengers over snow-capped mountains, stunning pine forests, and clear, pristine waters. Crucially, all Harbour Air routes last less than 30 minutes, making it a perfect fit for electric engines. 

“As an airline, we’re already carbon neutral - but we want to do more,” says CEO Greg McDougall. “We’re currently in the process of doing what a lot of people said couldn’t be done - converting our entire fleet of planes into all electric airplanes… If you think about it, it’s the natural evolution of transportation into electric propulsion.” 

To make this happen, the airline has partnered with magniX, a company powering the aviation revolution in every sense, to create the world’s first commercial flight with an electric engine. It leaves the tarmac for take-off in 2022.

While there have been real breakthroughs in the e-plane industry, the technical challenges that remain are keeping everyone’s feet firmly on the ground. A battery, even a lithium one, only provides 250 watt-hours per kilogram – compared to liquid fuel, which has a specific energy of 11,890 watt-hours per kilogram. In aircraft, where every bit of weight counts, this can’t just be ignored. 

Then there are the aviation regulations. The industry has spent years making the rules governing flying comprehensive, safe, and very, very stringent. In the US, these aren’t just regulations, they’re laws, and the powers-that-be are unwilling to change anything when they’re still unfamiliar with the technology and the risks associated with it. The problem is what’s been drawn up for piston-driven engines just doesn’t make sense when applied to an electric-powered plane. Case in point, under current Federal Aviation Administration rules, larger lithium batteries have to be encased in a ‘coffin’ to prevent a possible fire or leak, which obviously can’t work when that battery is what’s powering your flight. While the FAA is trying, it could take years for the regulations to catch up with the technology.

While there have been real breakthroughs in the e-plane industry, the technical challenges that remain are keeping everyone’s feet firmly on the ground

Battery-powered planes, especially on short-haul journeys, could become a reality in the next few years

The transition from petrol to electric in the automobile industry has been facilitated by hybrids, and many believe the same pattern could be followed in the air. Take a medium-haul flight with a range of just under 1599 kilometres. The CO₂ emissions could be reduced as the electric component is switched on at key parts of the journey, notably on take-off and landing. 

Hybrids give airlines a safety net when it comes to using electric engines and there are several models in production. Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens’ E-Fan X program features a two megawatt electric motor and has a 2021 launch date. United Technologies’ Project 804, which claims to cut fuel costs by 30 percent, will be ready by the mid-2020s. UK based airline Easyjet are collaborating with Wright Electric, with the goal of using electric aircraft on its regular services within 10 years. 

It’s certainly an exciting time for electric flying. With companies like Harbour Air and Eviation taking the lead, battery-powered planes, especially on short-haul journeys, are set to become a reality in the next few years. It will be longer distances that present the challenge, but hybrids may provide a partial solution, at least until technology and regulation can find a greener way to take to the skies.

This content is created by as part of the AUDI AG brand partnership with National Geographic.