The aircraft is a milestone in the race to decarbonise aviation, but net-zero flights remain some way off yet
In the race to net zero, aviation remains a formidable obstacle. The sector is not only one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of emissions (before the pandemic), but also one of the hardest to decarbonise. With the absence of ready-to-go green alternatives to the jet engine, the only viable short-term solution to cleaning up the airways is to fly less.
The good news is that low-carbon aviation is progressing, as evidenced in UK airspace this week. There, a hybrid plane is conducting a series of demonstration flights between Exeter Airport and Cornwall Airport Newquay, following a successful trial between Wick and Kirkwell in Scotland a fortnight ago. It is the first time an electric-powered plane has taken part in such tests in the UK.
The aircraft involved is a modified six-seater Cessna 337 with one battery-powered electric motor and one traditional combustion engine. Ampaire, the firm behind the plane, described the flights as “an important first step to decarbonising” regional air travel.
According to Ampaire, its hybrid plane uses 30 per cent less fuel than its non-hybrid rivals. But given the diminutive size of the aircraft, the modest saving highlights how much progress is still to be made if the UK aviation industry is to make good on its promise of being net zero by 2050.
As well as reducing emissions, Ampaire said the plane would reduce flying costs, potentially making some regional routes more viable financially, thus improving connectivity to isolated communities.
The test flights are part of the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment project. It was established to trial low-carbon technologies for aviation from its base at Kirkwall Airport, Orkney.
However, while the hybrid flights mark an important step towards greening air travel, Friends of the Earth warned that action is needed now to curb the aviation’s rising emissions.
“We won’t defeat the climate crisis by hoping for greener solutions tomorrow – we need real action today” said the charity. It is campaigning for a frequent flyer levy and to stop airport expansion in the UK.
Those shunning the skies in the name of the climate are being catered for by a growing number of overland travel companies. The French startup Midnight Trains is one of them. It recently announced plans to reboot the sleeper train concept with a fleet of ‘rolling hotels’ that will shuttle passengers between European cities from April 2022. Other European rail operators have similar plans.
Then there’s no-fly travel agency Byway. It launched in the second UK lockdown to capitalise on rising demand for flight-free holidays, and to promote the virtues of slow travel. Its founder, Cat Jones, told Positive News that business is booming.
“It’s really exciting because it feels like now is the moment for slow travel. Now is the time where people stop thinking of trains as a substitute for planes, and start thinking of them as a way of holidaying and travelling differently,” she said.
Main image: Ampaire