Electric Aircraft - A new era for aviation?

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner


Throughout the ages humans have dreamed of flying.  With the advent of the age of flight that dream became a reality as developments in aircraft technology meant that air travel was more accessible to, and affordable for, the general public. However, as time has passed, the world has become increasingly aware of the impact that its thirst for air travel is having on the environment.  This awareness, combined with the emergence of movements such as “flight shaming”, has increased pressure on the aviation industry to reimagine the way we fly.  This reimagining has propelled advances in alternative fuel technology and invited us all to consider how the risks and rewards of developing such technologies will be allocated between various stakeholders.

The need for change

As public awareness about climate change has increased so too has pressure on the aviation industry to cut its environmental footprint. The European Commission, as part of its Flightpath 2050 plan, wants carbon dioxide emissions reduced by 60%, nitrogen oxide emissions reduced by 90%, and noise pollution reduced by 75%. The European Aviation Safety Agency has announced that it will start categorising aircraft based on their carbon dioxide emissions, and the UK has committed to a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

While the impact of civil aviation on the environment cannot be ignored, equally the contribution that the aviation industry makes to the global economy must also be acknowledged.  The aviation industry is a significant contributor to the global economy and plays an important role in facilitating global commerce.  In addition the sector arguably fulfils a wider role in society, connecting families and communities and in particular guaranteeing those in remote places access to essential supplies and health care.  Given the integral role that aviation plays in global activity it is clear that any solution will need to involve not a curtailing of aviation activity, but rather a reimagining of the way it is executed.  Inevitably any such reimagining will involve finding a viable alternative to conventional fuel technologies as a means of powering aircraft.

Greener Alternatives

The two alternatives to conventional fuel sources most commonly discussed are biofuels and electric and/or electric hybrid aircraft. 


Aviation biofuel is a sustainable fuel made from plants, waste or algae.  The advantage of aviation biofuels is that they can be used with existing aircraft without modification.  They do not provide a complete solution as successful flights using biofuels to date have almost all involved a blend of conventional fuel and biofuel. They do however go some way to providing a significant reduction of carbon emissions.  Currently biofuels remain more expensive than jet fuel to produce and critics argue that plant based fuels require too much land, which would otherwise be used for food production, to provide a sustainable alternative.  Recent developments in technologies used to convert waste to fuel may provide the best hope for biofuels however a question mark remains over whether sufficient quantities can be produced to provide the reduction in carbon emissions needed.

Electric and Electric-Hybrid Aircraft

The use of electric aircraft is regarded by many in the industry as being the only sustainable long term alternative to the current generation of aircraft.   Not only would the use of such aircraft have a significant impact on carbon emissions, critically for an industry that is particularly sensitive to costs, it could also significantly reduce the cost of flying.   Not only is the cost of electricity typically less than conventional fuel but it is believed that electric motors will be simpler (and therefore cheaper) to maintain.

Electric aircraft also have the advantage of being much quieter than their conventional fuel counterparts, leading to less noise pollution.  They climb more steeply and need less of a runway.  All of these factors could prove a boon for those airport operators who are trying to balance the needs of inhabitants in congested cities with the continuing increase in the demand for air travel.

Developments in electric and electric-hybrid aircraft are however being hampered by the pace of development in battery and fuel cell technology.  While electric aircraft may provide the answer for short to medium haul journeys, until sufficient step changes are made in the development of lighter, smaller and safer batteries and fuel cells, electric flight for long haul travel will remain an aspiration rather than a reality. 

Risk allocation – who pays?

While these developments are a necessary part of the evolution of the aviation industry they do come at a cost.  Given the number of stakeholders with a vested interest in a sustainable aviation industry, who should pay for the development of these new technologies and who should bear the risk of introducing these new and emerging technologies into the market?

Traditionally new aviation technologies have been developed by the engine and airframe manufacturers often with significant governmental support.  While the manufacturers have borne the cost of research and development, operators have also shared the financial burden of delays and groundings when the entry into service of new products has not run to plan.

The recent difficulties encountered by certain airframe and engine manufacturers have highlighted the detrimental impact that a problematic entry into service can have on both OEM and airlines’ balance sheets.  As we look ahead to new aircraft technologies being introduced, operators, airport authorities and manufacturers will need to agree a framework for agreeing how these risks will be allocated and who will take responsibility for ensuring that the infrastructure necessary for a successful entry into service (whether that be physical charging stations at airports, pilot training, spare part availability or maintenance provision) is in place.  Along with the reimagining of the aircraft itself this may well involve a reimagining of the purchase and support agreements that accompany the entry into service of such aircraft.

With reportedly over 170 projects worldwide currently focussing on the development of electric aircraft it will be interesting to see how the race to the finish evolves.  Will more than one project have sufficient momentum to get the numbers to make the production of its product viable? Will traditional players retain their dominance or will we see a more diverse range of players in the market?  If the face of the market does change will the necessary infrastructure be there to support a varied range of aircraft or will the success of any new entrants be dependent on the support of the airport operators? 

These are questions that not only manufacturers, leasing companies and operators will need to grapple with – these questions are also relevant to those financing parties who are factoring the residual value of the aircraft into their decision making process.  New entrants into the market will need to convince these interested parties not only of the integrity of their product, but also that the aircraft will hold its value over the longer term and will not be affected by new technologies or insufficient buy-in from the industry.

Notable Projects and Collaborations

Interestingly, although there are a number of privately backed initiatives, a common feature of current projects is that they are often a result of collaborations between manufacturers, airlines and public bodies.  This perhaps rightly mirrors the make-up of the stakeholders who will benefit from the development of clean, low cost fuel alternatives.   The following is a snapshot of some of the more prominent projects and/or the projects which reflect the collaboration occurring in the industry.

Electric Aircraft

At the Paris Air Show in June this year, a prototype of the world’s first commercial all-electric passenger aircraft was unveiled: ‘Alice’, created by Israeli firm Eviation.  Alice is expected to enter into service in 2022 with the capacity to carry nine passengers for 650 miles (1,040 kilometres) at 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) at 276 mph (440 km/h). Despite being only at the prototype stage, there have been early expressions of interest in Alice. US regional airline Cape Air has already agreed to expand its 90-strong fleet by buying a “double-digit” number of the aircraft.

Similarly, Wright Electric, a US firm which has already built a two-seat battery-powered plane, is planning to develop a prototype fully electric aircraft, backed by EasyJet. EasyJet plans to use such aircraft to fly passengers on its short-haul routes, possibly within 10 years – a strong indication of support for fully electric aircraft.

Electric-hybrid aircraft

Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens are collaborating on the E-Fan X programme, which is envisaged will create an electric-hybrid aircraft capable of covering medium-range flights and be set to fly in 2021.  Such an aircraft would utilise a combination of conventional and electric power, which would substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions by allowing the electrical component to be switched on at take-off and landing, with the remainder of the journey powered by conventional fuel.

Other manufacturers, including United Technologies (which includes Pratt & Whitney in its portfolio) and Zunum Aero (backed by Boeing and Jet Blue), are also working on similar electric-hybrid projects. It is clear that developing electric-hybrid aircraft has sparked significant interest amongst many manufacturers.  Some commentators have in fact argued that the development of electric-hybrid aircraft is a necessary stepping stone to developing an electric aircraft that can service long-haul flights.


In August 2019 British Airways, Shell and Velocys announced that they had partnered to submit a proposal to build Europe’s first commercial waste to jet fuel plant.  It is intended that British Airways will purchase the fuel produced to assist in the reduction of its own emissions.    Virgin Atlantic and Boeing have also partnered with Lanza Tech in the development of sustainable fuel made by recycling waste carbon gases.  The fuel was used for the first time  for a commercial flight in October 2018.  More recently Lanza Tech has announced its intention to work with Tata Port Talbot Steelworks and the Neath Port Talbot Council to generate jet fuel from waste gases.


In August 2019 Widerøe and Rolls Royce announced a joint research project supported by Innovation Norway.  The aim of the programme is to develop an electrical aircraft concept, not only to fulfil the Norwegian ambition of zero-emissions by 2030, but also to replace Widerøe’s legacy fleet of regional aircraft world-wide.  


It is evident that we are on the cusp of a new age of aviation – one that is likely to be dominated by  electric aircraft.  Although critics may cite the lack of a capability to make long-haul commercial flights as being a barrier to any meaningful level of success, it is worth noting that two billion air tickets are sold each year for flights of fewer than 500 miles. EasyJet has announced that it will start using electric aircraft in its regular services by 2027, most likely on short-haul flights such as London to Amsterdam – Europe’s second busiest route. Norway and Sweden have indicated that they intend to make short-haul flights in their airspace electric by 2040.

In the near future at least, electric aircraft may not be a total game-changer – but there is certainly the potential to substantially change the face of short and medium-haul aviation within the next two decades.

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Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

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