Why Boris's zero emission aircraft may be mission impossible

Gwyn Topham

Will Boris’s Jet Zero ever fly?

The prime minister’s call for Jet Zero on Tuesday may owe more to his fondness for a punchy slogan than any realistic view of how UK aviation might develop in the next three decades.

“We should set ourselves the goal now of producing the world’s first zero-emission long-haul passenger plane,” Boris Johnson said. “Jet Zero, let’s do it!”

But as far as the technology goes, Johnson might have more luck building a garden bridge to France than getting British-made, long-haul, zero-emission passenger planes in service before 2050.

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Short-range electric flight is, for the very smallest planes, already a reality. Multiple firms, including UK start-ups, are working on zero-emission eVtols – electric vertical take-off and landing craft, or flying taxis – but the concepts are primarily for domestic inter-city travel, with only a handful of passengers on board.

Battery weight and range means that manufacturers currently view larger electric planes as feasible only for short-haul flights – and even then the focus is largely on hybrid-electric, with jet fuel needed for take-off.

The big UK contribution to this vision, a Rolls-Royce-Airbus collaboration called the E-Fan X, was quietly canned during lockdown.

EasyJet, should it survive, has long spoken of its hopes for a short-haul electric regional plane, and engine trials with a partner in the US, they say, have been encouraging.

Meanwhile, work continues at Cranfield university and elsewhere, trying to convince sceptics that hydrogen could eventually be a viable fuel for passenger jets.

Plants to produce synthetic jet fuels could be part of a net-zero mix (although not zero-emission when burned in flight). Low-emission flight – rather than no-emission – is currently the overwhelming ambition of civil aviation engineers.

Johnson’s target for a UK-built long-haul zero-emission plane before 2050 may, alas, swiftly crash-land with reality.