Prior to Covid19 the aviation sector was pegged for year on year growth. Historically a sector driven by economies of scale with capacity being concentrated on huge hubs with larger and larger aircraft. Recently fuel costs have driven airlines away from epically sized jets to more fuel efficient a smaller models however airport hubs just seem to grow and grow.
Whenever I look to travel, I am always amazed by the amount of time wasted in larger transport hubs. The length of a short flight can typically be expanded by double or even triple as time is taken up either end in traffic, parking, getting through security and waiting for baggage!
Does the energy transition and digitalisation change the way we need to think about aviation?
Future fuels push us to smaller, lighter aircraft
There are several alternative fuel pathways for flight which are currently getting most attention. Two of which, Hydrogen and Batteries come with energy density challenges. Batteries still weigh 30 times more than Aviation fuel for a comparative amount of energy stored and Hydrogen needs to be chilled and liquified to provide anyway near enough energy in a reasonable volume to fly an aircraft.
Currently the largest electric plane called the ecaravan weighs in at about 4 tonnes and can carry about 9 passengers for about 100 miles. The challenge of energy density in the batteries remains huge for electric aircraft – not least as currently regulations require planes to hold a substantial amount of energy in reserve in case of issues.
The largest Hydrogen powered plane – a six seater aircraft recently took off in the UK built by ZeroAvia using Hydrogen fuel cells. The company plans to do flights of 250 to 300 miles and even more recently Airbus have revealed a ‘concept’ aircraft which looks similar to what we fly in now – but something like that taking off feels a long way away.
Both technologies feel like something that’s going to work well for smaller aircraft – and not super jumbos.
Preparing Airports for Hydrogen or Batteries
Much of the focus is around getting aircraft in the air… and not how we would manage the infrastructure to scale thousands of aircraft regularly taking off and landing. Scaling matters when it comes to air travel – preCovid 40 Million flights took off a year! And to achieve that epic scale takes some incredible complex and integrated infrastructure on the ground. So, thinking about our two competing technologies what does that mean:
- Electrification: Efficiency in aviation is all about turn around time. Aircraft sat on the ground aren’t earning money. With battery powered aircraft airports will need staggering amounts of electricity import capacity. To back this up the electricity system would need be capable of supplying this power when it was needed – and in a green way!
- Hydrogen: Liquid hydrogen in large volumes is very different than aviation fuel. For a start it needs to be cooled to -259 degrees Celcius! That makes shipping, storing it and loading it on to aircraft quite challenging.
Don’t ignore digital disruption
Secondly digitalisation starts to make things interesting. Pilotless aircraft are certainly technically possible whether that be remote controlled or even potentially fully automated. Swarms of aircraft become possible as aircraft communicate directly with each other to find the optimum and safest route.
Technology can be completely game changing in every sector can be completely game changing.
The case for decentralised aviation…
In the UK there are literally hundreds of small airfields. In fact, so many it’s difficult to quantify. Additionally the number of potential ‘airports’ explodes if you start considering the potential for aircraft like the Osprey which can take-off vertically.
These present a tantalising prospect for flight. What if by spreading out the problem we have an opportunity to completely turn on its head the existing flying experience.
- Energy Provision: Particularly electrification presents huge challenges if demand is focused on a single point. Spreading the demand round reduces the size of infrastructure required.
- Doorstep to Doorstep. Airports are frustrating places causing a huge concentration of activity in one place. Even the slickest in the world still add a huge amount of time onto any journey.
- Convenience: To enable economies of scale we travel to an airport (sometimes hours of driving away). Local airfield s could open a new level of convenience.
- Experience: Smaller aircraft and airfields open the potential for bespoke experiences. Whereas now we are pushed into vanilla offerings – smaller aircraft completely open up opportunities for personalisation. Why can’t you order Wagamama’s or a Pret sandwich to have on the plane – you just need your UberEATS to get it onboard before you fly!
So is decentralised aviation the future?
I think realistically for long haul you will still need the big hubs (and long runways). But for shorter, greener trips there is real potential for aviation to become more like Uber than it is now. If something is greener, cheaper and convenient its going to be pretty difficult to compete with!
About John Armstrong
John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry. He began his career constructing oil refineries before moving to work across fossil and renewable electricity generation. John has lead the growth of decentralised energy and district heating in the UK and is a seasoned energy infrastructure executive. John is a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, a member of the Energy Institute and has an MBA n Global Energy from Warwick Business School.