Short-haul carriers have little reason to invest in the development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) when new propulsion technologies are on the horizon, in the view of EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren.
Speaking during a Eurocontrol event today, Lundgren suggested that while SAFs are “absolutely the right thing for long-haul” operators, short-haul carriers can look forward to a “hydrogen and electric environment” in the next decade or so.
His remarks are based on the assumption that new propulsion technologies are likely to be viable on intra-European flights within that timeframe, but not on longer-haul sectors for the foreseeable future.
SAFS are therefore “definitely not something we as a short-haul operator would look to as part of our end game, at all”, he says of the carrier’s sustainability strategy.
For EasyJet, investing in carbon-offsetting is “much better for the environment than putting in huge development costs for sustainable aviation fuels that actually will be obsolete if you’re a short-haul operator here in 10 to 15 years’ time”, Lundgren explains.
He describes carbon-offsetting – which EasyJet does for all of its flights – as “an interim solution before you get on to ground-breaking technologies”.
His views on offsetting contrast sharply to those of United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby, who recently described the concept as a ”fig leaf for a CEO to check a box [and] pretend that they’ve done the right thing for sustainability”.
Regarding the development of hydrogen and electric propulsion technologies, Lundgren says that “for all the bad things that happened in 2020, one of the encouraging things was that the technological advances in this field were quite remarkable”.
He cites the development of lithium-sulphur batteries as an example, alongside advancements with hydrogen technology, including progress towards using it to power “fuel cells or even a normal internal combustion engine”.
With those developments in mind, “there’s no doubt that it’s a matter of time when you’re going to see a large-scale, 150-, 180-seaters operating and flying”, Lundgren says.
The question is then no longer “technical”, he continues, adding: “It’s how we transition to that, what is the business model going to look like?”
Describing his considerations when imagining that future business model, Lundgren highlights several factors, including ensuring the performance and availability of aircraft powered by the new technologies; ensuring the availability of “the renewable energy to support the equipment”; and working out how the jet kerosene-powered fleet would be phased out.
EasyJet is “starting to think about” the latter issue, and “how this will take place”, Lundgren states.
Among the recent developments in the field of new propulsion technologies, Airbus – EasyJet’s current airframer of choice – unveiled conceptual designs for a potential zero-emission commercial aircraft in September last year, which it believes could be developed for service entry in the next 15 years.
Earlier in 2020, US firm Wright Electric said it was aiming to conduct ground tests in 2021, and flight tests in three years’ time, of a motor intended to provide propulsion for an electric airliner. EasyJet is a partner on the programme to develop the 186-seat electric aircraft, known as Wright 1.
The UK-based budget carrier was among a coalition of short-haul airlines, other aviation organisations and environmental groups that earlier in March called on the European Commission to ensure that long-haul flights are included in a forthcoming EU mandate on the use of SAF.