The biggest revolution since the jet engine?

Could this be the biggest revolution in the aviation industry since the invention of the jet engine?

When Richard Branson was once asked ‘how you become a millionaire,’ his witty response was, ‘to start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline’.

This is a sentiment that Ecotricity founder, Dale Vince is hoping to dispel with the launch of the World’s first electric airline, EcoJet, scheduled to run a 19-seater turboprop service from Edinburgh to Southampton in early 2024. This will be followed by a 70-seater aircraft taking trips to mainland Europe, with long-haul journeys also part of the ambition.

Despite the media hype that followed the announcement in July, the excitement was tempered by the news that the planes will run on conventional kerosene for the first year of operation before being retrofitted with engines that convert hydrogen into electricity in early 2025.

Describing himself as ‘an activist dressed in business clothing,’ Dale Vince is a former new age traveller who set up Ecotricity in 1995. He went on to sell the company in 2022 to focus on politics and renewable projects. His estimated fortune is over £107 million, and he is no stranger to controversy with his strong public support for climate activist groups such as Just Stop Oil.

In very simple terms, the plane’s fuel tank is filled with hydrogen and works in conjunction with a fuel cell that transforms the hydrogen’s chemical energy into electrical energy. The energy produced feeds into the aircraft’s motors. This process produces zero emissions except for a small amount of water which is released into the lower atmosphere.

EcoJet will lease second-hand airplanes that currently use conventional fuel, then reuse the existing airframe into becoming electric aircraft once the new hydrogen engines become available. The repurposing of old planes as opposed to building new aircraft is said to save 90,000 tonnes of carbon per year.

The new engines will of course need to go through a certification process that is expected to be completed in 2025, but they want to get the airline flying in early 2024, albeit on kerosene to secure planes, landing slots and to keep up the project’s momentum.

The strong sustainable ethos also extends to environmentally friendly staff uniforms and plant-based in-flight meals.

The 19-seater planes will have a range of 300 miles and will be restricted to internal UK flights to fill slots still vacated after the pandemic. The 70-seater jet is planned for launch 18 months later and will have a range of 500 miles, making parts of mainland Europe accessible.

With the launch of any new aviation technology, safety concerns are often raised. This is particularly important when game-changing engineering is applied to aircraft engines. Dale Vincent explains that conventional engines contain around 18,000 different moving parts, but the new hydrogen engine has only 18 different parts – thus far fewer points of potential failure and easier to maintain according to Mr Vincent.

It may appear over-simplistic, and we won’t have long to wait until we know if this ambitious project will take off. It is still pending the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) certifying EcoJet’s application to operate which they expect to be granted.

Regardless of opinions surrounding the environmental debate, the ingenuity behind the engineering is impressive and a potential game-changer in the quest for zero carbon flight.

Should everything go according to Dale Vincent’s plan, the first tickets for the retrofitted hydrogen flights should go on sale around the middle of 2024.

These are relatively short time frames, but isn’t that just what the industry needs if the net-zero targets are to be achieved within the proposed timescales?