There is a broad assumption in the airline sector that ticket prices are likely to rise as the industry makes its net-zero transition – particularly given cost projections for the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) that dominates most 2050 roadmaps.  

But some speakers at the Airlines 2023 conference in London on 20 November pushed back against that assumption when it comes to hydrogen-powered aircraft. 

Acknowledging it was “a controversial point of view”, James McMicking, chief strategy officer at ZeroAvia, cites three reasons why the hydrogen propulsion developer believes the technology will not necessarily bring higher costs in operational terms.

Hydrogen power

Source: ZeroAvia

“We think we can get the fuel [hydrogen] to a price point that is below the future price of jet fuel [and] SAF… through smart production,” he states.  

“Secondly, the engines are much more efficient on the aircraft we are going to be putting those engines on, so we are reducing the amount of fuel that needs to be consumed to fly,” McMicking continues. 

“And then finally, maintenance costs [will be taken out], because the engines will operate for longer without needing maintenance.” 

He notes that the cost benefit would initially be felt in the domestic and regional markets in which ZeroAvia’s propulsion systems would first be deployed, but that it could be expanded “as we scale up the technology”. 

McMicking cites the huge fall in the cost of renewable energy versus legacy power generation in wider economies as evidence of what new technologies can deliver.  

Also speaking in London, Alan Newby, director of aerospace technology and future programmes at UK-based Rolls-Royce, suggests there might be a pathway for hydrogen costs to fall significantly in the coming decades. 

“It’s a bit chicken and egg because you need that investment, you need those incentives to stimulate the production, but once it’s there we see the price of hydrogen in particular coming down because it’s not just necessarily an aviation commodity – there will be lots of other industries wanting to decarbonise their particular field as well,” Newby says. 

That is potentially good news for airlines such as UK-based EasyJet, which is “committed to taking a leadership position, particularly in the world of hydrogen”, according to chief operating officer David Morgan. 

“Ultimately we want to be flying in a world that is certainly no more expensive than it is now,” Morgan says. “Otherwise we start sliding into this situation where flying is just for the rich and privileged, and nobody wants to go back there.  

“It does require thought in terms of the infrastructure and scale,” Morgan cautions. “And what we mustn’t do is just allow the consumer to pick up the bill for everything.” 

Indeed, as with much of the airline sector’s sustainability activity, there are big hurdles to overcome before hydrogen technology is operational at a commercial scale and even begins to have a meaningful impact on emissions levels. 

Aside from covering the development costs, ensuring the technology is proven, introducing the regulatory framework, building the required infrastructure, and getting hydrogen propulsion on to airframes, “part of the challenge we all face will be who will be the takers of that hydrogen”, Newby points out.  

“The premise we always work to is that when you can electrify you should, and that you save your hydrogen for the really hard-to-abate and energy-intense sectors,” he explains.  

But as things stand, UK forecasts for hydrogen production “barely cover even the most conservative demands for hydrogen in aviation”, Newby notes. 

For hydrogen to take off in the UK aviation sector – whether that be as a feedstock for power-to-liquid SAF or in direct use for combustion – current production projections are “not going to be enough to provide scale”, he warns.