Electric Flight’s Issue: How Do You Transition From Fossil Fuels

As the aerospace industry continues its strides towards zero-emission, easyJet’s Johan Lundgren is contemplating the challenges a transition to electric and hydrogen aircraft presents to commercial carriers and their fleets. Speaking to Simple Flying’s Joanna Bailey last week, the airline CEO called for more incentives from governments for airlines to truly decarbonize operations.

easyJet’s boss recognizes the problems airlines will face transitioning to an electric and hydrogen-powered fleet.  Photo: Airbus

As the 2021 Chair for Airlines for Europe, easyJet’s Johan Lundgren has had significant involvement in Destination 2050, the European aviation sector’s road to net-zero carbon emissions by the midpoint of the century.

The budget airline’s CEO says he is excited about the promise of new technology such as advancements in batteries for electric flight and hydrogen power cells. However, he also acknowledges the problems that airlines will face in transitioning from fossil-fuel aircraft to a fleet powered by the next-generation propulsion systems.

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Transition troubles

With a fleet of over 300 aircraft and growing, how can an airline the size of easyJet begin to move towards zero-emission technology when it becomes available within the next ten to 15 years? The answer is still not clear. For certain, it will require legislators to find ways of stimulating upcoming technological adjustments.

“How do you make that transition take place? Do you do it on a per route basis, do you look at this from a base point of view, and how can the governments encourage and incentivize that transition to happen?” Lundgren mused during the latest installment in our Future Flying webinar series.

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Lundgren says governments need to incentivize new technology rather than focus on SAFs as their approach to reducing emissions. Photo: Getty Images

Sticks and carrots

It is true that with all the hype over new zero-emission technology such as Airbus’ hydrogen concept planes or the upcoming electric aircraft seating 19 people supplied by Swedish company Heart Aerospace, the conversation about scaling and how these will replace actual airline fleets has been lacking.

Furthermore, Mr Lundgren says governments are currently very focused on subsidizing and propagating Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) as the foremost solution to reducing emissions. However, they should be doing much more to support the new emerging technologies with tools such as regulatory and taxation frameworks, including for R&D.

“There needs to be something that actually not only penalizes companies but actually makes it worthwhile to go into these types of technologies,” Lundgren said, adding that he realizes there is a place for both sticks and carrots.

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Airlines should be given carrots as well as sticks to reduce emissions, the easyJet says. Photo: Getty Images

Carbon offsetting best there is today

Lundgren does not believe in SAFs as the best means to reducing emissions for short- and medium-haul routes. However, he does see it as one of the viable interim solutions for long-haul flights. While waiting for new technologies to become viable, easyJet is focusing instead on carbon offsetting.

As one of the first airlines to start offsetting all of its flights, Lundgren says all of easyJet’s flights are now essentially carbon neutral. Offset schemes and their debated impact are not without controversy, something that the easyJet boss says he is quite aware of, but at the moment, it’s the best there is.

“I know there are some questions and concerns that people have on this from a moral point of view, that you should pay for something while you are emitting at the same time. Well, today, it’s the one technology that is available if you want to have a dramatically reduced impact on the environment.”

What do you think the transition towards zero-emission technology will look like for airlines? Leave a comment in the section below and let us know.