Zero emission short-haul air travel is a realistic prospect by the mid to late 2030s, a panel of sustainable travel experts have agreed.
Speaking at Travel Weekly’s Sustainability Summit this week, easyJet’s sustainability director Jane Ashton said hydrogen and electric powered aircraft were both feasible within decades.
“From a short-haul perspective, we have quite a degree of confidence that we will be able to start integrating hydrogen-powered aircraft from the mid to late 2030s onwards,” Ashton told delegates.
However, she stressed “lots needs to happen for that to take place” and that moving to hydrogen aircraft would be a “gradual transition, over 20 to 30 years”.
“Not just manufacturing” of hydrogen aircraft was needed, she pointed out, but “production at scale of green hydrogen”.
She said: “It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time and have a degree of confidence in.”
But she made clear: “It’s definitely not the medium-term option for long-haul. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) will remain the realistic option for decades to come.”
While cleaner than current jet fuel, SAFs are not emission free. The UK government is mandating their use as a proportion of aircraft fuel from 2025.
On electric aircraft, Ashton said easyJet was “quite confident” it would be able to retrofit 100-seater aircraft “in the next couple of years” to begin testing.
However, she pointed out these are “smaller than the aircraft we are flying now” but said “it’s still exciting”.
Alistair Pritchard, Deloitte’s lead partner for transportation, told the summit that research suggests these electric aircraft had a range of about 300 miles – about the distance between London and Dublin.
“We do see electric as an option from a short-haul perspective,” he said. “But not for medium or long-haul.”
He said the technology was “beyond theory” but accepted “some challenges beyond 2050” such as the infrastructure to produce aircraft and their power at scale.
Pritchard said Deloitte research showed efficiencies in air traffic management could reduce emissions by 20%, however Ashton quoted a 10% figure when she pointed out the potential near-term CO2 emission savings. On a separate panel, Jet2holidays chief executive Steve Heapy suggested the Single European Sky plan, first launched in 2004, could make 10-14% reductions in carbon emissions in the continent “overnight” – and urged governments to “get it done”, saying they “have to help drive this, not just tell business off”.
Matt Finch, UK policy manager at NGO Transport & Environment, said both hydrogen and electric aircraft were “feasible” and “will exist in the future”.
“It’s still in the research and development stage but there is talk of commercial routes; London to Amsterdam on 100-passenger planes,” he said, adding: “That will get longer and longer as the technology improves.”
Finch believes hydrogen will be the “dominant short-haul technology for aviation in the 2040s and 2050s”. But he pointed out: “The UK targets a 75% reduction in emissions by 2035, there will be virtually no electric [aircraft] by then.
“The only way to reduce emissions by then is a bit of SAF and flying less.”
And he warned: “We are going to see more and more decarbonisation policies.”
Finch noted that the European Commission has proposed a kerosene tax and said: “I can see a scenario where the UK implements a fuel tax.”