It’s for that exact reason easyJet is calling for Government support when it comes to offering carbon-free flights, such as those powered by hydrogen. At least that was a key message from Captain David Morgan, Director of Flight Operations at easyJet, when he recently sat down with H2 View.
“We have to make sure that airlines, such as easyJet, that are prepared to do the right thing and go down the decarbonisation path are not disadvantaged,” he said. “It would be unthinkable to imagine that if we were to go down the hydrogen route and become carbon-free, that it would initially cost us more than a competitor that decides to sit back and do nothing.”
It’s no secret that easyJet is highly interested in hydrogen when it comes to the future of air travel, and the low-cost airline is now making great headways in the space, with hydrogen become a key focus – both for Captain Morgan and the wider company.
Casting his memory back to when easyJet first started looking at sustainable flight options, Captain Morgan said, “When we [easyJet] looked back a few years ago, we realised clearly that the climate emergency is coming our way and that we needed to address our sustainability issue – and we knew that our passengers care about that as well.
“It was about the time when we started to see the first electric cars, the Tesla vehicles were being invented, and there was expectation that everything would go electric. However, once we got into the detail and the physics and the science behind electric, it became clear that battery-powered aeroplanes were not going to have sufficient energy density to power a large commercial aircraft that we would need to fly in easyJet.
“From this, we then started to think about other options. At this point, hydrogen was clearly starting to become of interest, and some companies were suggesting that hydrogen could fill the gap which couldn’t be provided by batteries.”
For easyJet, a company which was back then just starting out in the space, collaboration with fellow industry professionals was seen as a vital move. Spearing heading its goals, it was in November 2019 when easyJet formalised a partnership with Airbus to take the sustainable flight effort head-on.
“At the time easyJet partnered with Airbus, we were looking at both the electric and the hydrogen side of things. Following that, Airbus soon after made an announcement that they would develop a hydrogen aircraft, and they came up with three concept aircraft for that,” Captain Morgan explained.
And it’s not just Airbus that easyJet has close relations with. Mentioning some other collaborations, Captain Morgan continued, “We have needed to partner with a number of organisations that we think are important to this journey. Airbus being one of them, Rolls-Royce another one, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, and more.
“Most recently, we formed a partnership with Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, which is developing a small plane using a hydrogen fuel cell. That’s not to suggest that we’re going to be flying a small plane, but there is lots of things that we can learn from them.”
However, it’s not just those who are physically taking flight that are of interest to easyJet. As Capitan Morgan explained, the company is interested in the whole ecosystem and is therefore in contact with the likes of ITM Power and Ørsted. “easyJet is strangely finding itself now having conversations with the likes of offshore energy provider Ørsted and renewable hydrogen companies like ITM Power, for example,” Captain Morgan said.
“An airline would never normally be involved with these kinds of discussions, but they are such an important part of the whole system that we need to be involved in. Even though it’s some time away yet before hydrogen flights actually happen, the time is actually short.
“We know that it’s going to take a lot of time to develop an ecosystem which is big enough and viable enough from a cost perspective that we can then operate these aeroplanes. Having the aeroplane is one thing, but having that system to be able to operate them is another thing.
“It’s been quite interesting, especially speaking to Ørsted, we’ve started to get a feel for even the number of wind turbines that are needed to create the hydrogen that we would need from one of our bases.”
When is the time to take flight?
For Captain Morgan, hydrogen-powered flights can’t come soon enough. Avid readers in the hydrogen aviation space would have seen various different numbers and targets thrown around, but there is yet to be a solid date for easyJet themselves.
Explaining what he expects to be the hydrogen flight timeline, Captain Morgan continued, “Hydrogen flights can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned but unfortunately, I’m going to have to wait a bit longer.
“I think that we will see hydrogen planes flying around in the next few years. In fact, there has already been a flight of a hydrogen fuel cell plane by ZeroAvia, and I think we’ll see more and more flights coming out over the next few years in those small planes.
“Then, I think in the middle of this decade, maybe 2025/2026, we’ll start to see slightly bigger fuel cell planes, maybe 50 seaters starting to fly commercial flights with passengers on between regional routes. Loganair has already expressed interest in those kinds of flights, which is brilliant.
“But in terms of easyJet flights, the step change from those small planes to a kind of 200-seater jet that flies across in a far size of Europe, I think we’re going to have to probably wait until the middle of the next decade.
“Airbus have given a date of 2035, of when they say they’ll have the first commercial aeroplane, and a few other companies have kind of given similar dates that they would have something of that size ready. I hope it could be quicker, but I think realistically, it probably is going to take most of that time.”
A smoother and cleaner flight for passengers
So what does all of the above mean for those who will be looking to jet off with easyJet in the future? Not much other than knowing that they are now flying in an even greener way, according to Capital Morgan.
Similar to the transition from a fuel cell electric vehicle from a conventional car, Captain Morgan expects the shift to hydrogen-powered planes to have very little effect on passengers. “In terms of the experience for a passenger, I think that any future generation aircraft that comes out in the next decade will be a step change in terms of the passenger experience, not necessarily because of the hydrogen that’s being used for the fuel, but there are going to be things on board which are all better because we’ve learnt from our experience of travelling passengers.
“We expect engines to be quieter because a hydrogen fuel cell is a very quiet engine, the car is almost silent, and the fuel cell doesn’t make really any noise. Of course, you’ll still get some noise from the from the engine, from the air going past, you can’t avoid that, but the technology in aerodynamics of engines is improving because of noise all the time.
“Our latest engines on the kerosene aircraft are already 50% quieter than the previous generation, and we would expect to see another step change in noise when we transition to the next engine, which will run on hydrogen, and so it should be a very pleasant experience. And of course, it’s got the advantage that it’s not emitting any carbon at all.
“I hope passengers will be delighted. We already know that they are very happy that we offset the carbon emissions using carbon offsets, and that’s just a tiny little thing that we do right now. We know it’s not the end solution, but we already see that they are grateful of that. So, I can imagine they will be extremely grateful when we are not emitting any carbon at all.”
From a pilot’s point of view, it doesn’t look like there are many changes in the flight experience either. “I think that in terms of aeroplanes, when we go from a kerosene aircraft to a hydrogen aircraft, we are not having to change the way that we fly aeroplanes,” Captain Morgan continued.
“The rules of the air are kind of fixed and we don’t need to we don’t need to reinvent how we fly an aeroplane. It’s really only the propulsion side of things which will change. Of course, there will be some training for the pilots about the fact that they have cryogenic hydrogen on board, and that it’s different from having kerosene and so on, but I’m not worried about that.
“Aviation is such a safety regulated industry with very strict rules that I’m very, very confident that any future aircraft will be as safe, if not safer, than the aircraft that we have today.”