Aircraft have not fundamentally changed since the dawn of the Jet Age in the 1950s with Boeing’s 707 aircraft. Airlines have made plenty of changes— smaller seats, worse food, the abandonment of first class— but the actual plane still stays the same.
A recent focus for environmental efforts has been planes’ impact on the planet. In recent years, when emissions standards for cars have become more strict and some states have planned to ban gas cars altogether, the emissions of air travel are still largely untouched. The aviation industry has been producing almost 2.5% of global carbon emissions in recent years according to the International Air Transport Association.
This could soon become an issue of the past. Eviation, an aircraft design startup, tested the world’s first ever all-electric plane in early October. Called Alice, the electric plane carries nine passengers and can fly 250 miles, about the distance from Atlanta, GA to Charleston, SC. Bigger electric planes with longer range are surely in design processes right now, but ‘Alice’ is already a viable plane for a large number of U.S. flight routes. The company also advertises the silent nature of their plane, allowing it to fly in previously banned airspace and making it more viable than ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuels,’ which are biofuels, another product that reduces planes’ emissions but still may not be enough.
Test flights, like the Wright Brothers’ plane in 1903 and ‘Alice’ almost 100 years later in 2022, are one step in a long process: approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA. With hopes to gain FAA approval as early as 2023, a world with electric planes may be closer than previously thought. The large air cargo company, DHL, has already ordered several cargo variant ‘Alice’ planes. Regional airlines who codeshare with larger ones, like United and American Airlines, have also placed orders.
Eviation is not alone, though. They are much further in the process to commercial use than any other company, but the big players are not shying away. Boeing is currently working with General Electric Aviation to design a larger electric plane with guidance from NASA. Airbus is designing a hybrid-propulsion aircraft with support from the French government. Electric cars may already be here, but electric planes are on their way fast.
Electric planes may not be enough to replace the biggest planes on the longest routes, though. Hydrogen-fueled planes have been explored and even constructed since the Cold War, but have never before seen a passenger. Hydrogen is lighter than batteries, and is more viable for long routes. Airbus’s ‘ZEROe’ concept for hydrogen planes are a good decade out from production, but U.S. startups hope for a shorter time frame.
ZeroAvia, a U.S. based company developing hydrogen aircraft, has received investments from American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, and others, and hopes to operate by 2024. They also hope to fly an 80-seat plane by 2026, which is similar in size to the planes airlines use for short flights to small airports. Since these planes are typically aging and airlines will be looking for replacements, this places both electric and hydrogen aircraft in a desirable position to take over the way we fly.