Nov 30 2022
British Airways and United Airlines are both aiming to begin using hydrogen-powered planes for short-haul flights beginning around 2030 as both airlines embark on their journey toward net-zero by 2050, the airlines' sustainability leaders said Nov. 30.
"The big focus is on hydrogen, and for us hydrogen is going to be a really key part of our pathway to net-zero," British Airways Director of Sustainability Carrie Harris said during the Hydrogen Innovation Summit hosted by ZeroAvia. "We're aiming to get to net-zero by 2050 -- ideally sooner."
United Airlines and British Airways have taken very different approaches to reaching their net-zero goals. British Airways, for instance, will use carbon offsets to account for one-third of its midcentury goal, while United Airlines has pledged not to use offsets in its carbon accounting.
Yet both airlines are making early investments in the hydrogen value chain through venture capital investments and startup accelerators, aiming to nurture companies like ZeroAvia, a California-based hydrogen aircraft developer founded in 2017.
ZeroAvia is focused on developing hydrogen-powered airplanes smaller than 100 seats used for subregional travel. The company's first model, at 10 to 20 seats, is expected to begin service in 2025. Its 50- to 70-seat aircraft is expected to launch in the 2027 time frame. The startup hopes to see its planes flying short-haul demonstration routes with major airlines by the end of the decade, founder Val Miftakhov said.
The company has said in the past that its aircraft could reach breakeven delivered cost at $5-$6/kg this decade with anticipated demand of 5-10 mt/day at medium-sized airports with regional traffic.
Platts, part of S&P Global Commodity Insights, assessed the cost of hydrogen production via alkaline electrolysis (including capex) on the US Gulf Coast at $3.09/kg Nov. 29, compared with Eur17.43/kg ($18.14/kg) in the Netherlands.
United Airlines is pursuing an "upgauging" strategy for introducing hydrogen-powered planes into its fleet, said Ed Espiritu, senior manager of corporate development at United Airline Ventures. Under that framework, the airline would begin by introducing obtaining 50-seat planes, then 76-seat planes followed by narrow-body aircraft, which can seat 100-plus passengers.
That strategy is shaped by two primary factors: cost and the US pilot shortage. Over the last 30 years, smaller short-haul planes have grown increasingly expensive to maintain and have been phased out and replace by larger aircraft. Hydrogen-powered small planes, however, have much lower maintenance costs, which could prompt the airline to bring back a generation of smaller planes to run shorter routes, Espiritu explained.
The pilot shortage, on the other hand, has made short-haul regional routes harder to staff, a factor that has also been driving the industry toward larger aircraft.
"Depending on who you ask, there's going to be questions on the cycle and nature of how long that shortage will actually last," Espiritu said. "If you believe some people who think that it's going to naturally ebb and flow based on supply and demand, then once we are enticing regional pilots to become pilots for larger-gauge aircraft, that will allow for new routes to cycle through, which will then include downgauging to the 50-seat market."
By the time that labor market cycle plays itself out, the hydrogen economy might have advanced enough to allow airlines to retrofit existing aircraft with fuel cells.
While also focusing on smaller hydrogen-powered planes, British Airways is taking a different tack. The airline wants to begin its hydrogen journey with planes that seat at least 70 passengers, which would fly out of British Airways smaller hubs, Harris said.
"What I'm really hoping for is that we see a breakthrough and we get the opportunity to retrofit onto existing airframes," Harris said. "I'm kind of open-minded, but I think for our operation, we're definitely more interested in like-for-like replacement of single-aisle short-haul aircraft."