Ever since the British engineer Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in 1937, commercial aircraft have been largely powered by fossil fuels.
But as the world strives for decarbonisation amid the escalating climate crisis, so the aviation industry is looking to reduce its emissions. At present, the sector is responsible for around 2% of the global carbon footprint.
However, recent advances in electric aircraft have created fresh hope that fossil fuels might one day soon be a thing of the past when it comes to flying.
At the most recent Paris Air Show, held in June, Israeli start-up Eviation unveiled a prototype of what has been billed as the world’s first all-electric passenger aircraft. According to the firm, the nine-seater plane – named Alice – will be able to cover distances of up to 650 miles and could enter service by 2022. Eviation has already received first orders from Cape Air, a US regional airline.
Elsewhere, budget airline easyJet recently signed a memorandum of understanding with aircraft maker Airbus to look into developing hybrid and electric aircraft for short-haul flights across Europe.
But what might an electric revolution mean for airports?
Revival hopes: the campaign to re-open Plymouth City Airport
Only ten years ago, Plymouth City Airport, situated four miles from the city on the Devonshire coast, UK, enjoyed annual traffic of approximately 158,000 passengers. Serving as a regional hub, it ran flights to popular domestic destinations, including London Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.
But following the withdrawal of flights to London in 2011, Plymouth’s passenger numbers fell away sharply, spiralling to just 100 a day. By the end of that year, the airport closed its doors and ceased operations. It has remained mothballed ever since.
Yet, in recent months, momentum has been building around a local campaign to re-open the airport. Campaigners believe Plymouth, being a smaller hub, is perfectly positioned to both facilitate and capitalise on the much-mooted, imminent arrival of electric aviation.
“Developing electric and VSTOL [vertical take-off and landing] aircraft would be perfectly suited to this airport, which would be a useful feed into the larger aviation hubs,” says Stuart Elford, CEO of Devon and Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, which has lent its support to FlyPlymouth, the group spearheading the campaign to reopen the airport.
“Combined with the southwest leading the way in clean energy and Plymouth being a key defence and maritime hub, it would be a shame to lose the airport – which is the only viable site in the city – when developments in aviation technologies could soon greatly help its viability and secure investment in the region.”
No noise: the advantages of electric aircraft
Not everyone supports the resumption of operations at Plymouth City Airport. When the hub was open, it was the recipient of numerous noise complaints from neighbours and local residents, with some cases even taken to a government ombudsman.
Others, including leaseholder Sutton Harbour Holding, have argued that its runway is too short to support commercial aircraft and would be much better off converted into a new housing estate.
This is where electric aircraft comes in, argues FlyPlymouth. In housing battery-operated aircraft, minus the din of huge turbines, noise pollution would be at a minimum. In turn, this would afford longer opening hours, increasing profitability.
Elford, though, is realistic that a return to commercial aviation at Plymouth is still a little way off. FlyPlymouth’s roadmap is for 2030, by which point it expects electric aviation to have advanced to such an extent that 19-seater commuter aircraft will be in operation. In the meantime, it believes Plymouth could still accommodate general aviation.
Can electric technology catch up with demand?
Or is this a leap of faith too far? Speaking to BBC News in June, Airbus’ chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini claimed that even if sizeable strides are made in battery technology in the years ahead, it still would only be able to fly an A320 carrier a fifth of its current range.
“Unless there is some radical, yet-to-be-invented paradigm shift in energy storage, we are going to rely on hydrocarbon fuels for the foreseeable future,” Paul Eremenko, United Technologies chief technology officer, also told the BBC.
Simon Calder, the British travel writer and broadcaster, believes electric aviation has “tremendous appeal”, but also fears current targets set by airlines, manufacturers and engine suppliers are overly ambitious – even for short-haul flights.
“I cannot see 2020s technology allowing a 150-seat aircraft to fly routinely and economically for 1,000km – the approximate distance from Heathrow to Nice or Manchester to Munich,” he says. “The present low energy density of batteries compared with jet fuel mean that some technological leaps will be necessary before such electric dreams come true.”
There is also the problematic statistic that roughly 80% of the aviation industry’s carbon emissions are derived from commercial flights that cover journeys of over 1,500km – a distance well beyond the current pace of development of electric aircraft.
It’s conceivable that, as this technology is developed, smaller, point-to-point airports, such as Plymouth, will have a role to play as staging posts towards commercial feasibility. Whether that happens in this decade, or the next, remains to be seen.