A small plane, yesterday

View from Brussels: Future of flight on the EU’s radar

Image credit: ZeroAvia

European governments and the EU itself are paying ever more attention to the future of the aviation industry, as ideas such as hydrogen-power, kerosene taxes and even ditching flight all together start to get more play.

Air travel is not in rude health at the moment. Coronavirus lockdown measures, quarantines and a simple lack of wanderlust have devastated demand and the balance sheets of even the most resilient airlines.

Governments have leapt to the defence of their carriers, spending billions of euros on bailouts. At last count, nearly €40bn has been approved or pledged in Europe.

The future of the industry is far from certain but that has not stopped some big blue-sky thinking during the coronavirus crisis about how planes should be powered in the decades to come. Especially as climate targets start to bite.

As part of France’s €15bn aerospace rescue plan - aimed at shoring up firms like Airbus - the government has set up a €1.5bn innovation fund, with the aim of developing a zero-emission successor to the popular A320 narrow-body plane.

The idea is to spend big on hydrogen-power R&D in order to tap into the green yet powerful potential of the fuel and to throw electric-hybrid systems into the mix for smaller, regional aircraft.

Airbus actually nixed plans to demonstrate a new plane next year that would have been powered by one electric-battery jet engine, but the new focus by Paris suggests that project could come out of storage at a later date.

US startup ZeroAvia (pictured above) took its first steps towards its goal of developing a 200-seater hydrogen-powered flyer on Monday (22 June), when a battery-powered, all-electric, six-seater plane took to the skies over Bedfordshire.

The firm wants to use this first flight as a stepping stone to installing a hydrogen powertrain linked to propeller engines. CEO Val Miftakhov said a net-zero emissions future “will not be possible without realistic, commercial options for zero-emission flight, something we will bring to market as early as 2023.”

Hydrogen’s possible application to flight was the subject of a new EU-backed study published earlier in the week, which concluded that the fuel would be extremely suited to both short and medium long-haul flights.

However, the authors warned that the significant aircraft redesigns that would be needed in order to accommodate fuel tanks would make the costs prohibitive for long-haul planes.

They also added that “significant research and development, investments and accompanying regulation” are needed to make a success of it.

A lot of those requirements could be just over the horizon. EU safety regulator EASA recently granted the first worldwide certification for an electric-battery plane and next month the bloc’s executive branch will publish a long-awaited strategy aimed at boosting hydrogen’s supply and demand, unlocking billions of euros of investment in the process.

The plan is still in draft form but is expected to focus on ‘green’ hydrogen, produced using renewable power and electrolysers, rather than the ‘blue’ hydrogen generated by fossil fuels linked to carbon capture and storage.

It will also likely insist that hydrogen is still a precious commodity at the moment due to the costs involved in producing it, so it should only be used to reduce the carbon emissions of sectors where there are no other options.

That will mean industries like steelmaking, smelting and heavy-transport getting the nod over passenger cars and simple power generation. It will be up to the aviation sector’s main players to decide if they want to hop on the hydrogen bandwagon, as there might be limited seats available.

Powering planes with green fuels is not the only way to reduce the sector's carbon footprint under consideration. Imposing a kerosene levy is also on the agenda, perhaps not at EU-level due to the complexities of tax matters, but on a bilateral basis between countries that are interested.

Late last year, nine countries - including France, Germany and Italy - said that aviation should start paying its way more fairly and that number is reportedly growing as climate policies go up the list of government priorities.

There is also the simple idea of reducing the number of flights outright. Air France’s airline bailout obligates the flag-carrier to cut its domestic routes in half, while KLM’s package requires it to reduce the number of night flights it runs.

Austria, meanwhile, will put a price-floor on air tickets and ramp up the amount of funding it spends on rail services, including night trains.

As far as Europe is concerned, airlines are being given the choice of either adapting to a new reality or maybe going it alone and seeing if consumer demand for flight will be enough to see them through.

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