Is the future of corporate air travel electric?

future of corporate air travel

It’s been reported that airlines have ordered tens of billions of dollars worth of new planes from Airbus and Boeing, after the aircraft manufacturers unveiled new models at the Paris Air Show. But hybrid and electric aircraft also caught the airlines’ eyes…

“Eco-friendly” were the words on everyone's lips at the biannual Paris Air Show. Attendees were treated to a showcase of electric and hybrid airplane models, many developed by start-ups keen to show off their more-efficient and more environmentally-friendly aviation designs.

The focus on electrically-propelled aircraft reflects a rush to develop urban flying taxis and longer range fully electric planes as a response to climate concerns.

Consultancy firm Roland Berger has reported that the number of electric aircraft in development has increased by about 50% over the past 12 months to 170 – and this number could increase to 200 by the end of the year.

There are two big factors are driving increased investment from the airlines:

1. The aviation industry is responsible for up to 3% of all global CO² emissions (a figure that’s projected to rise sharply in coming years)

2. The industry spends roughly $180billion a year on jet fuel.

“Increased efficiency has been the name of the game when selling aircraft for decades,” said Nikhil Sachdeva, a senior consultant at Roland Berger. “Electric is the next phase.”

The Next Era of Aviation

Grabbing most attention in Paris was Israeli planemaker Eviation Aircraft, announcing that US regional carrier Cape Air would be the first customer for “Alice”, its electric airplane. Alice can fly nine passengers up to 650 miles on a single charge, and Eviation claims it can cut airline operating costs by 70%. Cruising at 10,000ft, the plane uses one main “pusher” propeller at the tail, and two more on the wingtips, and is powered by batteries. Manufacturing will begin in the US later this year.

The Air Show also saw a major deal by two European industrial heavyweights: UK engineering company Rolls-Royce purchased the electric and hybrid-electric aerospace propulsion business of German giant Siemens. The deal is expected to close later this year.

The eAircraft business, based in Germany and Hungary, employs around 180 specialist engineers who are developing electric and hybrid propulsion systems. “Electrification is set to have as dramatic an impact on aviation as the replacement of piston engines by gas turbines,” said Rob Watson, a director at Rolls-Royce. “We are at the dawn of the third era of aviation.”

Could hybrid aircraft be the 'norm' by 2022?

Prior to the Paris Air Show, aircraft manufacturer United Technologies revealed its merger with defense contractor Raytheon. But the American multinational conglomerate still had another surprise up its sleeve for aviation enthusiasts: it unveiled a hybrid electric plane at the Air Show, with a goal to have planes in the air by 2022.

Built on a mid-sized regional turboprob, the plane uses the existing airframe, systems and propellers. However, it runs on batteries and a 2mW hybrid-electric propulsion system.

Airbus is also aiming to test a hybrid aircraft by 2022, and announced a collaboration with European aerospace firms Daher and Safran to help meet its target. They said they've signed a memorandum of understanding with SAS Scandinavian Airlines to research hybrid and electric aircraft systems.

There’s still a long way to go before we see air travel being dominated by electric planes, but it looks like they’re really starting to take off with major players in the industry getting on board with making aircraft more environmentally friendly.