Air New Zealand hopes to fly hydrogen-powered aircraft on its regional network by the end of the decade.
The airline and Airbus have today announced a joint initiative to research how zero-emissions green hydrogen could be used around the country on turboprop aircraft with about 50 seats.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), Air New Zealand will analyse the impact hydrogen aircraft may have on its network, operations and infrastructure, while Airbus will provide hydrogen aircraft performance requirements and ground operations characteristics.
Air NZ's chief operational integrity and safety officer David Morgan said the technology exists and now was the time to work on ways to use it on passenger aircraft and develop the infrastructure to support them.
While hydrogen production is in a trial stage in this country and Airbus' planes are still in the development phase, he said the airline and the country had to seize the moment.
''New Zealand with its renewable electricity, hydrogen which [is] now being proven in tests around the world, now's the time to put it into aircraft that will work in our regional network.''
Morgan said the airline and Airbus would focus on hydrogen to produce electricity in fuel cells that would drive electrically powered engines.
The airline's regional network was made of relatively short flights which meant there wouldn't need to be hydrogen - which can be stored as a gas or a liquid - available at every airport in the country.
Bigger airports were looking at how alternative fuels and charging technology can be incorporated into their infrastructure and Air New Zealand had consulted with the Government on the development of the hydrogen system.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said the MoU brings the airline a step closer to its net-zero emissions by 2050 commitment.
"At this stage, both hydrogen and battery electric aircraft are still on the table as potential options for our shorter domestic flights, along with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for long-haul operations. This research will help to inform future decision making as we work to decarbonise the airline."
Hydrogen is produced using large amounts of energy and for it to be viable it would need to be made with renewable electricity.
Morgan told the Herald it was too early to tell how costs would compare to traditional aviation fuel.
"We're talking eight and a half years away and part of the issue will be scaling up the infrastructure to supply hydrogen fuel to the airports and the technology of the aircraft. As the numbers increase and scale is introduced costs will go down."
Air New Zealand ran test flights with jatropha plant oil 12 years ago which Morgan said provided valuable data in the evolution of SAF.
Airbus is currently looking at three concepts for hydrogen-powered aircraft, including a turboprop, turbofan and blended wing option.
The plane maker's Asia-Pacific president Anand Stanley says the company chose to work with Air New Zealand because of its commitment to sustainability, reputation for technical excellence and alignment with the manufacturer's own decarbonisation goals.
"This agreement with Air New Zealand will provide us with important insights about how we could put a zero-emission aircraft into service. The joint study will enable us to gain invaluable feedback on what airlines will expect and their preferences in terms of configuration and performance."
Airbus, on its website, says because fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, they are a clean source of power and those that use pure hydrogen are carbon-free.
Unlike batteries that need to be recharged, fuel cells can continue to generate electricity as long as a fuel source (hydrogen) is provided.
Because there are no moving parts, fuel cells are silent and highly reliable, Airbus says.
Electrolysis to produce green hydrogen needs water, a big electrolyser and plentiful supplies of electricity. The gas is already used to directly power cars and trucks.