It might seem ambitious, but passenger airlines could be using electric aircraft for short trips within two years, an aviation expert has said.
It comes as Rex Airlines announces plans to trial the emerging technology by 2024 on selected regional routes.
- Aviation experts say airlines could start using electric aircraft on some flights within two years
- There are a number of aircraft operators already trialling the technology
- Public perceptions around safety is a hurdle that airlines need to overcome
“The technology is working. It’s been proven in trial flight, and we can do a lot in two years,” Aviation Projects managing director Keith Tonkin said.
It is not just Rex making the switch to electric.
Across Australia there are several other airlines and aircraft manufacturers working towards a similar goal using a number of different aircraft.
“There’s some companies in Australia that are really heavily involved in the battery charging systems and infrastructure elements of the technology,” Mr Tonkin said.
Driven by environmental concerns
Like many other recent technological innovations, the current push towards electric is being driven by environmental concerns.
“There’s a worldwide effort towards reducing carbon emissions from all aircraft operations, which contributes about 2 per cent of the world’s carbon pollution,” Mr Tonkin said.
But there are hurdles to overcome before reaching that future. Formost is passenger perceptions around safety.
“There’s definitely a stakeholder engagement perspective to it,” Mr Tonkin said.
“I think it’s just a matter of educating people about the benefits of the new system… and then once we get started, it’ll be okay.”
Rex Airlines plans to retrofit existing aircraft in its fleet and switch fuel cells for batteries.
But Mr Tonkin said ideally a new aircraft would be specifically designed and built around the new propulsion system.
“It’s the same as retrofitting a car with a battery electric engine. It’s not ideal,” he said.
Battery weight a hurdle
Center for Aviation chairman emeritus Peter Harbison said battery weight was a major issue.
“The problem with electric operations in aircraft is that they basically rely on batteries, and batteries are heavy,” he said.
“If you wanted to fuel an A380 for a long-haul flight, you would need a battery that weighed something like 500 tons, which is more than the weight of the aircraft itself at the moment.
“But on smaller, shorter sectors, it is going to be possible quite soon… within the next two to five years, to have aircraft that can operate short haul on electric power.”
Safety regulations must be met
Mr Harbison said the technology would also allow other companies to operate flights using smaller planes and transport up to half a dozen passengers.
He believed heavy safety regulations in aviation would allay passengers’ fears about electric technology being used in the air.
“You can be absolutely assured that nothing is going to be flying people around that has not been vetted incredibly thoroughly,” Mr Harbison said.
“And of course, we’re not alone in this in the world. There are lots and lots — some very, very big — companies working on this at the moment because they recognise that this is the future.”
“I’ll be flying in an electric aircraft by the end of this decade, that’s for sure.”