Electric Planes Are Taking Flight

More airlines are ordering battery-powered aircraft to help reduce their environmental impact

Electric plane
Heart Aerospace's ES-30, a regional electric airplane with seats for 30 passengers Courtesy of Heart Aerospace

As convenient as flying may be, air travel is not great for the environment—by some estimates, commercial flights alone are responsible for 3 to 4 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

But electrifying air travel is one way to reduce the sector's climate impact. And though experts say that widespread commercial adoption is still down the road, battery-powered planes are starting to gain more traction.

Last week, Air Canada became the latest airline to commit to trying the new, zero-emission technology by ordering 30 battery-powered passenger aircraft from the Sweden-based Heart Aerospace. United Airlines and regional provider Mesa Airlines each ordered 100 of the company’s planes in summer last year.

Airplane at sunset
Amid increasing pressure, the travel industry has set ambitious goals to help reduce its environmental footprint. Pixabay

For now, these in-development electric planes are small, with room for up to just 30 passengers. And they can’t travel far—Heart Aerospace’s plane, powered by more than 5 tons of onboard lithium-ion batteries, can only fly 124 miles on one charge. But, with help from a fuel-powered generator, it can expand its range to nearly 500 miles, reports the Washington Post’s Pranshu Verma. But even that so-called “hybrid mode” would still produce 50 percent fewer emissions than standard planes. These electric aircraft would also be much quieter, Heart Aerospace executives say.

The Swedish company says its planes could be ready as early as 2028, but the vehicles will need to pass an array of regulatory hurdles before they can take flight.

Airlines—and the travel industry as a whole—have come under fire for their environmental impacts. And they’re responding with ambitious targets and plans. United, for example, has pledged to reduce emissions by 100 percent by 2050 through a combination of cleaner fuel and carbon offsets, while countries like Denmark and Sweden have set goals to stop using fossil fuels for domestic flights by the end of this decade. Cruise lines have also vowed to take action on climate, with companies like Hurtigruten Norway pledging to launch the first zero-emissions passenger ship by 2030. Trains, too, are becoming greener: The German state of Lower Saxony recently rolled out its first fleet of passenger trains that run entirely on hydrogen.

MS Nordnorge
Hurtigruten Norway plans to launch its first zero-emission ship by 2030. Courtesy of Fabrice Milochau / Hurtigruten Norway

Airline leaders say they plan to use the initial batch of electric planes for short, urban commuter routes, including those they previously discontinued because they were too expensive to keep running.

Many also view the small electric planes as an important first step toward scalable green travel technologies.

"We don't want to wait for 50 seats, 75 seats, 125-seat aircraft," said Mike Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, to Reuters Allison Lampert last year. "We want to get involved now by investing in a company that we think has a big technological lead with the hopes of, over time, working with them to move the size of the aircraft to larger gauge.”

Larger-capacity electric planes are also in the pipeline and could take to the skies within the next decade. Los Angeles-based Wright Electric, for instance, is developing a 186-seat commercial jet with an 800-mile range that executives say will be available starting in 2030; the company is also working on an electric 100-seat plane that’s due out in 2027.

Airplane on runway
Battery-powered planes are just one of the many innovations in development to make air travel greener. Pexels

Still, without major advancements in battery technology, building electric planes that can hold hundreds of passengers and travel thousands of miles will be a big technical challenge. In the meantime, airlines are also turning to more sustainable fuels, carbon offsets and other innovations to reduce their impacts now and into the future, when air travel demand and emissions are both projected to increase (despite the Covid-19 pandemic’s toll on airlines).

“We must do everything we can to make future aviation environmentally sustainable,” writes Gökçin Çınar, an aerospace engineer at the University of Michigan, for The Conversation.