Running any kind of airline requires deep pockets and even the most well-heeled operation runs on very tight margins. So there’s not much going free in the skies these days. Our own national airline British Airways, for example, won’t give you a glass of cheap wine and a curled up sandwich in economy anymore. Nope, now you have to pay for something from M&S, although you can do it from the ‘comfort’ of your in-flight seat rather than buying it from the shop in the terminal.
As we all know, budget airlines have an even greater reputation for being skinflints when it comes to putting the passenger first. The glory days of penny fares offered by Ryanair a few years back seems like a distant memory. So if you’re attempting to travel on the cheap then it takes a canny flyer who can dodge the blizzard of extra charges that come with a seat on a low-budget carrier today.
Now, though, easyJet is pushing ahead with plans for electric passenger jets, which it thinks will reduce carbon emissions, noise and work pretty well on key short haul routes. Presumably they’re hoping to shave a wedge of cash off their running costs too, as airline fuel is not a cheap commodity. Although the airline is increasing its orders and use of the much more efficient Airbus A320neo, it needs to do better. So, the airline is looking to the London to Amsterdam route (Europe’s second busiest, no less) as a prime target for an all-electric aircraft.
The budget carrier has partnered with American start-up company Wright Electric, which in turn has applied for the patent on an electric engine that could, possibly, power a nine-seater aircraft. It sounds like a plan that has been inspired by the growing fleet of smaller all-electric aircraft that are currently being developed around the globe. Some have even managed to get past the sexy computer-generated design briefs and a few have taken things a step further and done the most important thing – get off the ground. In fact, Wright Electric has another partner in the shape of Axter Aerospace, which has its own two-seater aircraft flying.
Building electric aircraft comes with a mountain of hurdles to overcome though, even if it’s a seemingly-straightforward two-seater. With that in mind is it really going to be possible for easyJet to get a nine-seater commercial aircraft into the skies? While the biggest barrier could be getting certification, without which you’re certainly not going to get off the ground, there are plenty of technical issues to pick through too.
It’s a similar quandary as the one facing businesses who are currently trying to get passenger-carrying drones off the ground. But, going all-electric is certainly going to help reduce pollution caused by jets, something Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet, was keen to point out recently. “We know it is important to our customers that we operate sustainably and with the introduction of A320neos,” he said, “we can already provide a 15% reduction in carbon emissions and 50% less noise footprint, putting us amongst the best-ranking airlines in Europe.”
Lundgren’s mention of the marginally greener A320neo airliner is a nod in the direction of Airbus, which is also dabbling in the realms of electric aircraft. The company has been developing a multipassenger, self-piloted CityAirbus concept. Similarly, Vahana has been collaborating with Airbus and has developed AlphaOne, which is essentially a drone taxi. The electric vertical-take-off-and-landing (eVTOL) flying machine boasts eight propellers and has already flown.
A Lilium landing pad
Rather more jet-like, however, is Lilium, which is a fully electric vertical take-off and landing jet. The project is the brainchild of Daniel Wiegand, Sebastian Born, Matthias Meiner and Patrick Nathen while they were academics at the Technical University of Munich. The admittedly very cool-looking Lilium will have a range of up to 300km and a cruising speed of 300km/h. Better still, the team behind it reckon the zero emissions and five-seat capacity will be embraced by early adopters who want to do their bit for the planet. Think on-demand air taxi for business-types.
Again, Lilium is already past the dazzling computer generated mock-ups stage and has been seen in the skies over Germany. Admittedly this was just a two-seater prototype that, according to the company, managed to go through its signature mid-air transition from hover mode to wing-borne forward flight. Currently, claim the boffins, Lilium is the only electric aircraft capable of both VTOL and jet-powered flight, using its wings for lift, similar to a conventional aeroplane.
They also claim that the design means the aircraft consumes around 90% less energy than comparable drone-style machines. Power consumption per km, the Lilium team hopes, will be comparable to an electric car. And, of course, take-off and landing will only need a smallish open space or even a landing pad on a suitably located building thanks to that VTOL engineering. The company already has solid investment and cites, as an example, that if it can travel up to 300 km per hour on a single charge, it could be used to take you from Manhattan to JFK Airport in as little as five minutes. Not bad for a 19km journey.
Nevertheless, all this is meaningless if certification isn’t forthcoming. It’s a hurdle that all these electric flying machines are going to have to get through if they’re ever going to become viable. One business that has had first-hand experience of these obstacles is the team of engineers and designers from Workhorse. This US-based company cut its teeth on developing and building a successful electric vehicle range, many of which are used by parcel couriers and suchlike across the States.
The business has since gone on to explore the potential viability of electric aircraft and has already built – and flown – the SureFly. Granted, it’s not a jet per se, but the drone-like two-seater can carry two people and flies using four propeller arms. It’s slightly different in that it uses a hybrid propulsion system that combines a petrol engine with electric power. The company were at CES last year and flew the SureFly briefly out in the desert, although it was still tethered to the ground. While there was relief at the time, it had been a hard slog getting permission to take off.
“We only received experimental certification the week before,” said Patrick Conners from Workhorse at the time, underlining how things had gone right down to the wire. “So the engineers who did the design were exhausted. They had been working around the clock for three weeks beforehand. It’s not an easy thing to get that certification and it took us around three months. We were actually very lucky to get it that quickly. Usually it takes much longer. The problem that all manufacturers in this space will have to deal with is the evolving regulations of the Federal Aviation Authority, because right now they do not have a category that perfectly fits this.”
Meaning they’re essentially in uncharted territory… “Exactly,” says Patrick with a laugh. “And the technology is coming quicker than the government can write the rules. But, we have experimental status as a manned rotorcraft, so if I were to sell it to you today, which I could do, then legally you would have to have a helicopter licence.”
So for all the optimism surrounding electric flying machines, it’s clear that things might take a little longer than some of the claims being made by company chiefs, particularly easyJet’s Lundgrun. “Looking forward, the technological advancements in electric flying are truly exciting and it is moving fast. From the two-seater aircraft, which is already flying, to the nine-seater which will fly next year, electric flying is becoming a reality and we can now foresee a future that is not exclusively dependent on jet fuel.”
It’s a nice thought, but next year sounds a tad over enthusiastic. Nevertheless, if they can pull it off then that hop across the North Sea to Holland sounds like the perfect route to begin with. “The target range of the electric plane is around 500 kilometres which, within our current route portfolio, would mean a route like Amsterdam to London could become the first electric ‘flyway’,” he added. “And as it is currently Europe’s second busiest route, this could in turn offer significant reductions in noise and carbon emissions, with multiple take offs and landings every day.”
Lundgrun is also hoping that he’ll get support from the Dutch government, which already has a reputation for open-mindedness and a willingness to try new initiatives when it comes to being greener. “We think the Netherlands has an opportunity to lead the way if the Government and airports encourage airlines to operate in the most sustainable way now and in the future and incentivise them through a different and lower charging structure,” he added hopefully.