Blue-sky thinking

Avinor is a Norwegian state-owned enterprise that operates 45 airports and has set itself an ambitious goal: By 2040, all short-haul domestic flights will be on electrically powered aircraft. We talk to Avinor CEO Dag Falk-Petersen about cleaner, quieter and less cost-intensive air travel.

02/26/2019 Interview: Bernd Zerelles Photo: Shuttersnap, Unsplash, Acey Rozells, Avinor Noorulabdeen; Illustration: Felix Hackmann
Reading Time: 4 min

E-mobility at air travel

Mr Falk-Petersen, Avinor is neither an airline nor an aircraft manufacturer—it’s an airport operator. What made you decide to electrify air travel?
Dag Falk-Petersen:
Society today is dependent on air transport. This is especially true of Norway due to its location on the edge of Europe and its far-flung, rugged landscapes. In order to provide passengers with the best possible vacation and business connections, there needs to be ongoing innovation at a local as well as, of course, at international level. We are looking into electrifying aviation because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because we believe it makes business sense.

What’s more, climate change unquestionably represents a huge challenge for our planet. All sectors of society — including aviation — must reduce energy consumption and switch over to renewable resources. If we don’t take this challenge seriously, the industry may face higher taxes and sanctions, which would impact our business. So this is why we need to develop low or zero-emissions technologies. When we succeed, aviation will no longer be part of the problem, but part of the solution.

"When we succeed, aviation will no longer be part of the problem, but part of the solution."

"When we succeed, aviation will no longer be part of the problem, but part of the solution."

- Dag Falk-Petersen, CEO Avinor

Isn’t electrifying air travel still way out of reach?
To reduce the total emissions from aviation, we must do better than business as usual. That’s why we have already spent more than a decade investigating sustainable aviation fuels. In January 2016, Oslo Airport, one of the facilities operated by Avinor, became the first in the world to offer sustainable aviation fuels to all airlines. We extended the program to Avinor’s Bergen Airport in 2017.

For more than a decade now, we have worked together with the Norwegian airline industry on various projects geared to reducing aviation’s CO² emissions. A case in point: By introducing new energy-efficient aircraft, the two biggest airlines in the country, SAS and Norwegian Air Shuttle, have more than halved their emissions per passenger kilometer since 1998. The problem is that these measures have been outpaced by growth in traffic. This sparked our considerable interest in developing electric airplanes.

In which areas does the use of electric aircraft make most sense? Will it be a niche market?
For roughly the first decade, electrified aircraft will be an option primarily for short-haul flights with a limited number of passengers — for instance, on routes between secondary hubs or between smaller regional airports and major ones. In Norway, electrified aircraft could even replace the 38-seater Dash 8 planes that are widely used for regular passenger services. As battery technology continues to improve, larger electric airliners could also be introduced. Based on our discussions with aircraft manufacturers, we believe that we could have electrically powered regional 50–70-seater planes within the next decade. Both Zunum Aero (backed by Boeing and JetBlue) and a consortium consisting of Airbus, Siemens and Rolls-Royce are examples of aircraft producers that have very interesting plans. Although the first electric aircraft will only have a limited range and capacity, there is a market for them. Of the 45 airports we operate in Norway, many are not that far apart as the crow flies. That means many domestic routes could already be served by electric aircraft using technology already available today.

What are the main advantages of all-electric airplanes?
One obvious advantage is that electric aircraft don’t produce any exhaust emissions. As an added bonus, Norway produces 99.8 percent of its energy from renewable hydropower. That means we already have a virtually emissions-free solution. Aside from reducing CO², another factor important to us and, of course, to those who live in the vicinity of airports is minimizing air traffic noise. What’s more, lower energy costs and less maintenance should also substantially cut operation costs. That would open the door not only to new routes and better connections but also to new market opportunities for our customers.

Aircraft fuels should ideally be lightweight, have a high energy density and occupy a minimal amount of space. Does electric power fill the bill?
At first glance, that seems like an unrealistic wishlist. But you have to take into consideration that gas turbines are only 30 to 40 percent efficient, while electric engines achieve 95 to 98 percent. Plus, the fuel capacity on board is rarely fully utilized. A Boeing 737 traveling the roughly 350 kilometers as the crow flies between Oslo and Bergen doesn’t need the same quantity of fuel as on a flight to the Canary Islands. And the same goes for electric aircraft. They are only provided with as much energy as is required for their routes and the market they serve.

To increase an aircraft’s range, it is crucial to reduce its weight. In view of how heavy batteries still are, is that feasible?
Weight reduction is a key principle for all modes of transport. Fresh designs, lighter materials and new technologies - in the case of batteries, too - will further improve performance. At present, it’s impossible to say just how far we can push the envelope in the short term. This is why most electric aircraft designs already incorporate some kind of range extender. Within the next decade, we can expect battery capacity to allow for regional flights of 500 to 700 kilometers. A range extender - in the form of either a turbo generator or hydrogen fuel cell - o recharge the batteries would then come in handy.

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