After a global lockdown travel and tourism is gearing up for a fresh new start, but there's a long way to go writes Thomas Bywater
electrifying Travel's last leg
COMMENT: Long-haul flights have recently become the target of flight shame. Passenger jets are a huge source of carbon emissions. Something climate scientists argue is only exacerbated by releasing gases at high altitude. However a call to ban long-haul flights misses the point. Jumping in a car and completing the same journey from London to Auckland overland would actually be far less carbon efficient – not to mention far less practical.
A seat on a B 787, at the moment is still the 'least worst' option available to the public. Having said that, there is one factor that often flies under the radar.
Short-haul and domestic plane journeys outweigh long-haul trips on emissions.
Last year Air New Zealand carried 197,000 long-haul passengers. That same year there were over 1 million passengers on the rest of the carrier's services. New Zealand isn't a special case. As total US air passengers approached 1 billion last year, the FAA counted 80 per cent – or 746.4 million of these passengers were travelling domestically. Per kilometre travelled there are fewer forms of transport as inefficient. Which is a tragedy considering so many of these flights could be replaced with alternative transport options.
Electric aircraft have even been touted as a solution. We're probably closer to sending men to Mars than using battery-powered aircraft to reach Melbourne, but for shorter distances – under 1000km – hybrid and electric options are already taking off.
New Zealand may well be the first country to offer emission-free regional flights. So says Rhyan Wardman, director of Sounds Air.
Last week his airline signed a letter of intent to an aircraft manufacturer in Sweden which would see their operations become fully electric.
"We currently fly 110,000 people a year around New Zealand. Our ambition is to roll out zero-emission services from 2026 onwards."
Having weighed up several options, the planes that Sounds Air is considering are not built by Boeing or Airbus but by the European startup Hart Aerospace AB.
Like the Blenheim-based airline the aerospace firm has high ambitions for its ES-19 planes, which it intends to use to "electrify regional travel" in the next five years.
With a range of 400km and seats for 19 passengers, the plane's mission statement is to reinvent regional travel in every corner of the world.
"The 'short hop' sectors we fly means we are well positioned to adopt electric aircraft," says Rhyan. The turbo-prop is not that different to Sounds Air's current fleet of Pilatus PC12s. Albeit, battery powered.
Sounds Air is one of the first eight airlines in the world to take up Hart on their word. They have a long distance to cover in not a lot of time. The Gothenburg-based company is still to fill 20 critical design and engineering roles before they can even begin work on the plane.
The "small and yet highly skilled team" is still more of a cottage industry compared to the aerospace companies like Boeing, Airbus an Lockheed which employ over 100,000 engineers each.
To be the first airline to go electric may be a hollow victory, if the rest of the world is still decades away from adopting the technology. Perhaps a time will come when countries draw a dateline in the sand for small aircraft to make the switch - as they have for electric cars. By the time Sounds air get their planes, Germany might be driving only electric cars.
How's that for Vorsprung Durch Technik?
Looking at other areas of clean transport such as EV and hydrogen fuel-cells, Rhyan remains optimistic. "The pace of adoption may well occur faster than we think."