Australian regional airline flies into an electric future

Cheaper fuel costs. More reliable engines. Carbon emission cuts. It’s a no-brainer that regional airline Rex has resolved to electrify its aircraft. And Outback Australia might get cheaper tickets and more flights.

Such market forces mean the resulting deep cut to the company’s carbon emissions is gravy to the mix, says Rex Airlines deputy chairman, John Sharp. 

Rex operates a fleet of small to medium turboprop aircraft linking regional airports with capital cities. Now it’s partnering with Australian-based Dovetail Electric Aviation  to propel its 34-seat Saab 340 aircraft into the future.

Batteries and hydrogen fuel cells will replace jet-fuel tanks. The turboprop engines will be swapped for electric ones built by US manufacturer MagniX.

Because electric engines are generally lighter, simpler and more reliable than combustion engines Rex believes they will be flying significantly quieter aircraft with a 40 per cent cut in operating costs.

“(This) promises to deliver the holy grail in aviation: true sustainability; lower maintenance and operating costs and also less waste as a function of the reuse of existing aircraft,” Sharp says.

“It’s dramatically different. The electric motors are inherently safe — they’re probably safer than any other form of motor,” Sharp says.

“Significantly lower operating costs of electric aircraft will also help to stimulate regional aviation services between communities not currently served by scheduled flights. It’ll make those routes viable for the long-term.

“And it will open up new opportunities in the towns and cities where you would not have thought it would be viable to operate a regional air service.”

Aircraft turbine engines are no different from other fossil fuel combustion engines regarding carbon emissions. What is different is where they dump their emissions.

A large portion is released at high altitudes. Here, the gasses and particles can trigger the formation of cirrus clouds. These act as a blanket retaining ground heat.

The IPCC says this is on top of aeroplane carbon dioxide output which contributes about three per cent to global human-activity-based emissions.

When combined with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, electric engines can significantly reduce an aircraft’s carbon footprint.

But their effectiveness in aircraft remains unproven.

Electric cars are successful but aircraft also have to produce enough lift to stay aloft.  

MagniX believes its engines have reached the point where their thrust-to-weight ratio makes installing them on short-range and regional commercial aircraft viable. It’s teamed up with NASA to which aims to introduce Electric Aircraft Propulsion (EAP) technologies to U.S. aviation fleets no later than 2035.

Rex says it will initially use its electric aircraft on regional routes that last less than an hour, such as Mount Gambier to Adelaide.

Ultimately, whether or not we see electrically powered larger airliners will come down to how much energy can be produced per kilogram.

But the heat is on.

Efforts to offset carbon output through biofuels have largely failed through high costs and competing food crops. There’s simply not enough being produced to make a difference.

Now airline manufacturers are looking for alternatives, including hydrogen-fuelled aircraft.

“Australia, with its very high utilisation of regional aviation and large number of aircraft capable of conversion, is a perfect incubator for the electric aviation industry,” Sharp says.

Retrofitting its existing fleet is hoped to accelerate electrification by reducing the Civil Aviation Safety Authority certification process. It usually takes about 10 years to get a whole new aircraft design approved.

Dovetail says it hopes to have a Rex testbed aircraft in the air by 2024, with the first all-electric conversion flying commercially within four years. 

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