The budget carrier easyJet recently announced they’re collaborating with American firm Wright Electric to develop new electric aircraft suitable for flying some of easyJet’s routes within the decade. But – before you get all excited and start imagining jetting off to Mallorca for your hols on the aviation equivalent of a Tesla Model S – these planes will only be deployed on easyJet’s short haul portfolio. This covers flights like London to Edinburgh and Amsterdam.
The main benefit of these new electric aircraft is of course reduced emissions. Airlines are under increasing public pressure to cut emissions, and newer aircraft types such as the Airbus A320 neo and Boeing’s 737 MAX offer reductions in emissions of around 15% compared to the previous generations. However, a significant driver for the airlines is cost efficiency improvements.
Electric is cheaper than aviation gas and with the possibility for new tax structures if electric aircraft ‘take off’, cost advantages are ripe. Another benefit is reduction in noise emissions, which allows airlines to fly later from more airports whilst remaining on the right side of noise regulations.
EasyJet isn’t afraid of innovation either. In 2014 they took the plunge and made their cockpits ‘paperless’ – replacing the tradition array of paper charts, checklists and manifests with a ruggedised laptop saving both the cost of said paper and the man hours going into making sure it’s all up to date.
They’ve also got rid of their traditional seats and replaced them with so-called ‘slimline’ seats to cut back on weight and increase capacity; both of which increase fuel efficiency and reduce effective emissions per passenger.
So do I see these as being a not-so-roaring success? Well, possibly.
One issue with these new aircraft is rather simply that they’re not Airbuses. Most low-cost carriers standardise on a single type of aircraft so they can bulk buy aircraft parts when they’re cheap, have bargaining power for maintenance contracts and have some semblance of ‘hot-swappability’ if they need to change aircraft at last minute as the sizing and capacity will be the same. This would see this advantage somewhat diminished for easyJet.
Aviation bodies have been reluctant to embrace new technology in the past so it’s likely to take some finagling to get them to agree to battery powered aircraft
They also don’t have the range to ply the lucrative routes to places like Palma de Majorca, the Costa del Sol, Germany and the like. In the interest of efficiency, the engines will be mounted in the wings like the old days. This has the disadvantage of making them harder to maintain and replace and this is all added cost.
The batteries are stored in the hull. This presents the possible issue of eating into hold space for baggage – an area that is well utilised now. This would stop the aircraft being used on holiday routes (even if they had the range) where passengers typically take a couple of suitcases with them, and these routes are some of the airline’s most profitable.
If the batteries went kaput there’d be no restarting the engine.
A significant barrier is regulatory approval as well. Aviation bodies have been reluctant to embrace new technology in the past so it’s likely to take some finagling to get them to agree to battery powered aircraft – especially considering the battery issues facing Boeing 787s a while ago.
Attention must be paid to how the aircraft fails too. In a conventional aircraft if the lights go out the engines can still be controlled backup systems. If the batteries went kaput there’d be no restarting the engine so these aircraft wouldn’t be able to be used away from land unless something more reliable was thought of.
This being said, these aircraft offer an exciting glimpse into what the future of aviation could look like; with clean, quiet aircraft the order of the day.