DALLAS — The air travel industry is focused on overcoming the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic while shaping the future of air travel.
The main issue facing aviation going forward is not its capacity to expand, but rather the capacity to expand both financially and sustainably in a post-pandemic world.
The global aviation industry produces around 2.1% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As a result of increased CO2 emissions during a time when the industry has few choices for reducing those emissions, the expansion of the world’s aircraft fleet in response to demand will actually have a worsening effect on the environment.
Aerospace manufacturers and airlines have been persistently pursuing higher fuel efficiency since the start of commercial aviation. Despite fuel efficiency advances, efforts to reduce emissions have not been successful in keeping up with the demand for air travel.
This trend could continue into this decade, although it’s not entirely apparent what should be done. Over ten years will pass before commercial aircraft use the non-fossil propulsion systems now being developed, the most promising of which are hydrogen and electric batteries. As a result, airlines are exploring the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as a band-aid.
SAF makes up less than 1% of all jet fuel used today, and it is currently three times more expensive than regular jet fuel. That doesn’t add to the list of escalating operating expenses carriers must deal with. Even with the use of SAF, it is anticipated that aircraft emissions will surpass 2019 levels by 2030.
Although developing biofuels and sustainable aircraft is incredibly expensive, regulation has compelled airlines to take on the task.
Beginning in April 2022, flights in France that could be completed in two and a half hours or less by train were outlawed. Similar policies have been seriously examined or put into place by other businesses worldwide, including in Austria, The Netherlands, the Belgian provinces of Wallonia, and many more.
Airlines, one of the most carbon-intensive industries, will continue to run into more and more regulatory hurdles unless flying is made less carbon-intensive. Companies’ environmental stewardship is increasingly connected to their competitiveness. Biofuels, increased engine performance, and carbon offsets all contribute somewhat but fall short of electric aircraft.
There is no challenge with flying electric aircraft; the challenge is with the commercial side. Electric planes were already in use in 1973 when the MB-E1 became the first electric aircraft to fly with a human crew, in 2015 when the Solar Impulse 2 completed a world circumnavigation entirely powered by solar energy, and in 2020 when the Pipistrel Velis became the first commercially available type-rated electric aircraft.
Compared to fuel, batteries are more expensive and less energy dense. It never made sense for manufacturers to go through the taxing procedure for a product that didn’t have a compelling commercial case because developing aircraft is extremely expensive. Luckily, a strong business case is being fronted for the first time.
Compared to the US$1,160 they cost in 2010, batteries now cost about US$100 per kilowatt-hour. However, less has been done to increase battery energy density, which is the amount of electricity stored per pound or kilogram.
The Electric Commuter Market
Since weight is not as important in electric vehicles, expenses can be reduced by using more batteries without increasing energy density. However, the longer an aircraft can fly, the lighter it is. Adding more batteries has decreased rewards.
Due to the high cost of developing an electric jet engine and the likelihood that it would be limited to small commuter or regional aircraft, all commercially available electric aircraft are propeller-driven. Therefore, airlines must take into account the likelihood of slow, electric, and short-range aircraft.
United Airlines (UA) has flights to sixteen locations that are less than 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from their hub in Denver, Colorado. Despite being close by, many of these locations have high yield and frequency because they connect travelers to well-known ski resorts.
19 of Wideroe’s (WF) 47 total destinations are located within 250 miles of its Tromso hub, and the majority of its hubs are located over shorter distances. Wideroe is a regional airline based in Norway. Then there are airlines like Cape Air (9K), which do not operate any routes longer than 250 miles.
These airlines have the ideal use case for electric airplanes; they are simply not deploying them yet.
These regional collaborate with mainline airlines to offer connecting routes and operate 9-seat propeller aircraft between large hubs and regional locations. Due to the short distances between destinations, the range and speed limitations of electric aircraft are irrelevant.
Given that the major airlines have significantly longer boarding times, not to mention the delays at airports, the extra 10 or so minutes that these smaller aircraft take relative to the bigger ones are insignificant, and often even worthwhile. People want to get to airports quickly, get on airplanes, and get to their destinations quickly.
Big data analytics can help airlines do this. Real-time answers to present and future market demands, better planning, better decision-making, and a clear understanding and monitoring of key performance variables are all available to them.
By accomplishing the above, the airlines will reduce operating costs, become more competitive in the market, and boost profit margins. This can be interpreted as the driving force behind Airbus’s development of Skywise, a pioneering open data platform for the aviation industry.
Local airlines took advantage of the fact that resistance rises as speed squares, realizing they did not have to be as quick as commercial airlines. They just take off locally, fly directly, and land at the specified location that is nearest to them.
By doing this, you can avoid factors like the 40-minute wait for an Uber after landing, the 20-minute walk to the airport, and missed connections. As a result, all three modes of transportation—air, land, and sea—can cooperate in the future of air travel, and some aircraft designers are working to solve the emission issue.
Alice, a nine-passenger electric aircraft created by startup aircraft manufacturer Eviation, was ordered for the first time by Cape Air in 2019. It will be able to complete every roundtrip flight on the airline’s routes without needing to recharge the batteries.
It is intended for short journeys, such as Boston to Seattle, and travels at nearly the same speed as a prop plane at 200 mph. It takes about twice as long to fly as a Boeing 737, but it is significantly quieter, and smoother, with nearly zero emissions. However, Alice will require a 30-minute charge before each 2-hour trip.
There are even more ambitious projects under development in the battery aircraft design industry; like the 100-passenger Wright Spirit battery plane from Wright Electric, and the hydrogen fuel platforms by ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen.
Through cleverer designs and cleaner engines, commercial aviation has made progress against climate change, but many of these improvements have been undone by increased flight demand. Following the successful flight of a 6-foot hydrogen fuel cell aircraft, ZeroAvia is now aiming for a 20-seater, technically commercial cell.
Since water is the only byproduct of the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, which is the most common element in the universe, there wouldn’t be a negative impact on the ecosystem. The difficulty is how to transport an airplane of large size across a significant distance in a manner that is commercially relevant.
Val Miftakhov, the founder and CEO of ZeroAvia, thinks the hydrogen fuel cell is the ideal strategy. based on fuel cost, fuel use effectiveness, and climate change mitigation. The energy density of hydrogen as a fuel is three times better than that of jet fuel, according to Val, a former success in the EV charging sector.
As a result, any size of aircraft powered by a hydrogen cell can travel any distance an aircraft powered by jet fuel can travel over time. The system is scalable to all sizes of commercial aircraft in use, though it may take the industry some time to get there.
ZeroAvia generates electricity to turn a propeller using a hydrogen fuel cell. By combining hydrogen and oxygen, combustion in an engine is avoided while producing power, heat, and water. Establishing fuel cells is one thing; building a new infrastructure to provide hydrogen, however, is quite another.
Is Hydrogen the Best Solution?
Due to the necessity for widely dispersed fuel infrastructure, hydrogen has not taken off in the automotive industry. Hydrogen was not practical for the US automobile business because it required more than 100,000 gasoline stations, but it is feasible for the aviation sector because all traffic flows via 100 airports.
Much larger and much more concentrated hydrogen stations will be needed, and they will be much fewer in quantity.
John Paul Clarke, co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Universal Hydrogen, says they designed a modular turbo-system for the domestic turboprop market. Similar to ZeroAvia, it enables the retrofitting of already-in-service aircraft. Transferring gaseous hydrogen from one point to another is hard since there are no pipelines or specialized trucks for it. Hydrogen cannot be liquefied, although other gases can.
Additionally, you will need to make some room in the fuselage because the hydrogen must be on the aircraft and cannot be stored in the wings. There is a technology that can be retrofitted that allows for refueling without increasing the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight; however, it requires that many seats (10–20%) be removed. In a sector with slim profit margins, this is too much to expect, yet it hasn’t stopped the entrepreneurs.
According to Universal Hydrogen, the cost per available sea mile (CASM) decreases slightly or, at worst, is equal to what we have now if hydrogen is used. Despite having fewer seats available, the cost of maintaining each one is the same or less.
They are also creating engines, much like ZeroAvia, but the latest technologies have far lower maintenance costs because there are fewer moving parts. The straightforward shafts in electric aircraft would address the majority of maintenance tasks that aircraft currently require for their engines.
By 2024, ZeroAvia hopes to launch its first 20-passenger hydrogen flight between London and Rotterdam.
Embraer, Airbus Initiatives
Similar to the concern about the range that battery-powered electric vehicles on land experience, sales of hydrogen fuel are likewise quite limited. They still lack the capability to power a typical 100-passenger jet at this time.
Future aircraft engines may incorporate hydrogen combustion technologies, which will produce no carbon dioxide emissions and extremely low nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.
New technologies often have unanticipated side effects, and some studies have suggested—albeit with a great deal of uncertainty—that the contrails and cirrus clouds produced by the enormous amounts of water vapor released by burning hydrogen could have an impact on global warming four times greater than carbon dioxide.
However, Embraer’s new Energia H2 Fuel Cell and Hybrid Electric 19-to-30-seater concepts contest said studies. Embraer points out that, when hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell, persistent contrails are much less likely at typical altitudes for propeller-driven aircraft. H2 fuel cells also have the potential to run as a single propulsive power source or as a hybrid one in combination with thermal engines and batteries.
The new commuter and regional aircraft showcased at the ‘Embraer 2022: The Shape of Things to Come‘ presentation are aimed at helping assess the technical and economic viability of the novel propulsion systems for their subsequent implementation on larger Embraer aircraft.
On its part, Airbus plans to refit a gas-guzzling Superjumbo with a new hydrogen-burning engine in order to achieve its goal of introducing a hydrogen-powered passenger aircraft by 2035. A fifth engine that is hydrogen-ready will be added to the redesigned aircraft and installed on the back fuselage.
As the world’s largest airplane, the A380 has space for 400 kg of hydrogen. Our aviation future can also be seen in the company’s plans for a blended wing complex that would store additional hydrogen.
Aside from the intricate engineering issues, producing hydrogen itself presents challenges. The majority of the hydrogen used in fuel is produced by severing it from natural gas molecules. However, that process uses a lot of energy and emits carbon dioxide.
Clean hydrogen production requires electricity from renewable sources, which is much more expensive. Initial costs are intimidating, as they are with any new technology, but time may be the best cure. However, because there are fewer operational costs and more capital costs in this situation, the overall cost is much lower. As scale increases, the cost of output substantially decreases.
The first phase is not about the most efficient aircraft; which delivers the lowest NOx emissions. It aims to show that hydrogen can be transported on board, burned safely inside, and utilized to propel a passenger airplane. Including every single aspect of the product in the initial step, will only slow down the procedure.
Will the demand for domestic travel lead to the adoption of H2 technologies by narrowbody aircraft, especially given that by 2032, narrowbodies will account for 64% of the fleet, up from 58% in January 2020?
Ultimately, the viability of the technology, the business model, and market adoption stand in the way of the future of aviation.