Airbus will buttress its moonshot plan to build a hydrogen aircraft by the middle of the next decade with an effort to power conventional jets with sustainable fuels.
Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury said Tuesday that he’s confident the European planemaker can bring a hydrogen plane into service by 2035. In the meantime, Airbus will work to increase the amount of sustainable aviation fuel that can be used in its engines, with a goal of reaching 100% from the current 50%.
“I’d like to correct a misunderstanding,” Faury said at an online event hosted by Eurocontrol, which manages the region’s air traffic. “We’re not saying it’s hydrogen and it’s not sustainable fuels. It’s both, and on the contrary, in the very short term, sustainable aviation fuels will definitely play a very important role.”
Faury’s comments bring Airbus closer to the stance of rival Boeing, whose CEO Dave Calhoun has dismissed the potential for hydrogen power to be used at scale in commercial aviation for decades. The U.S. manufacturer is targeting moving its entire fleet to sustainable fuels by 2035.
The debate plays into the high-stakes chess-game over which aircraft designs get greenlighted in coming years. Boeing has been weighing whether to go ahead with a new plane that can challenge the coming Airbus A321XLR. The Airbus model, which is set to debut in 2023, has proven popular with airlines because it combines the economics of a single-aisle jet with the ability to travel long distances.
Airbus has promised to bring an alternative-fueled aircraft to market next, and has been vocal about its hydrogen plans. Meanwhile, though, it has solicited engine ideas for a more conventional single-aisle jetliner in development, Bloomberg reported in December. At the time, analysts suggested the talks may be focused on a plane that could be capable of switching over to alternative propellants as the market developed.
With current usage below 1%, the aviation industry needs to accelerate its adoption of sustainable fuels, Faury said Tuesday. Such fuels are much more expensive than kerosene, and airlines are reluctant to eat the extra cost of adoption or to pass it on to passengers.
Airbus has said it’s examining three potential designs for its hydrogen aircraft — a turboprop, a blended-wing format and a more conventional jet configuration. All of them would use hydrogen in modified gas turbines to propel the engines, and in fuel cells to create electrical power.
Bloomberg reported in February that the propeller option is gaining favor for the mid-2030s debut. While easier to pull off, the turboprop would have a shorter range and carry fewer passengers than today’s single-aisle planes, and therefore address a smaller potential market.
Faury said it will take time before the whole fleet can be decarbonized. Provided Airbus can get its technology matured by 2025, he’s confident of meeting the mid-2030s target for a hydrogen plane.
Hydrogen and electric propulsion could ultimately converge, with batteries too heavy to power conventional jets but other solutions such as powering a fuel cell with hydrogen a possibility, Faury said.
He added that Airbus is still very interested in urban air mobility, or so-called flying taxis. The company sees an opportunity to test electric propulsion at a small scale on such crafts, before scaling the technology up for commercial aviation.