New Zealand’s aviation sector has consistently shown a pioneering commitment to sustainability, and is now embracing a move towards electric propulsion, reports Tony Harrington. Regional airline Sounds Air has just announced it will acquire three Heart Aerospace ES-19 electric airliners, emerging as the first Asia-Pacific operator to choose the Swedish all-new aircraft. The carrier’s switch to electric aircraft comes at a time of significant national focus on sustainability, as the New Zealand government, guided by recommendations from the country’s independent Climate Change Commission (CCC), frames the first of three five-year emissions budgets, to be implemented across all industries by 2035. Electric and hydrogen propulsion systems, along with sustainable aviation fuels, were promoted prominently in recent submissions to the Commission from airlines, airports and energy providers, each seeking to influence policies and funding priorities to cut aviation emissions.
From 2026, Sounds Air intends to operate Heart Aerospace’s zero-emission 19-seat planes, initially between the national capital, Wellington, at the base of the North Island, and provincial communities including Blenheim and Nelson atop the nearby South Island. The airline, which currently operates four 12-seat Cessna Caravans and six nine-seat Pilatus PC-12s, is targeting all-electric operations by 2030, with a strategy that could also include retrofitting some of its Caravans should such a modification be available, affordable and viable.
Last year, Christchurch Airport facilitated the first flight of an electric aircraft in New Zealand – a two-seat Pipistrel Alpha Echo – and Sounds Air is now outlining its plans for scheduled flights with e-craft within five years. Chairman Rhyan Wardman said the airline planned initially to operate the ES-19s in addition to its current, conventionally-fuelled Caravans and PC-12s, as it gradually transitioned to all-electric operations.
The ES-19s will have an operating range of 400km, precluding nonstop service between all destinations on the Sounds Air network, but Wardman said improved battery capacity was expected to deliver longer-range versions of the aircraft towards the end of the decade, enabling unrestricted network coverage.
He said the airline was considering reducing its fleet of Caravans once the ES-19 entered the fleet, but added it might still retrofit some aircraft with electric propulsion systems if conversions were certificated, although it did not want to lead such a programme. Wardman was not aware of any plan by Pilatus to provide electric propulsion for the PC-12, but said Sounds Air would be interested in exploring such an option if offered.
The decision to introduce three ES-19s, and likely more, followed an extensive review of proposed electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, including retrofitted versions of current aircraft types, revealed Wardman. Inspired by concept designs of Eviation’s Alice all-electric commuter aircraft at an international air show prior to the pandemic, he said the airline quickly recognised zero emission regional aircraft were appearing on the horizon at a time when Sounds Air was shaping its long-term growth strategy.
“We already knew that we needed to migrate from the Caravans and PC-12s to a 19-seat aircraft, and as we delved more into it we realised that we could be an early adopter of the next generation of regional aircraft,” he explained. “We thought if it was going to be airlines like ourselves who led this change, then why not us?”
Sounds Air approached New Zealand’s Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority with details of the re-fleeting plan, and secured funding support to conduct a feasibility study to identify the optimal aircraft type and energy source for its new operations. The airline also engaged with airports in its network, in particular its biggest gateway, Wellington, as well as electric power suppliers Marlborough Lines and Mercury Energy to help inform its decision.
“We were fairly agnostic about what technology we would embrace as long as it propelled our ambition for zero emission operations,” said Wardman. “We looked at all of the aircraft in development and in the end, it came down to two main contenders, Heart Aerospace and ZeroAvia, which was testing hydrogen options.”
He reported significant work was now required to gain certification of the ES-19 for operation in New Zealand, a process he was confident would be aided by European and American certification of the type for customers Finnair, with orders for 20, and United Airlines and its regional partner MESA, with orders for 200. Others such as Icelandair are also actively considering the ES-19 for their regional services.
But for New Zealand’s aviation industry, the shift to decarbonising technology is not just focused on electrifying short-range flights. It also wants to expedite the shift to hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuels to help decarbonise medium to long range operations.
In its submission to the Climate Change Commission, national carrier Air New Zealand said it expected to reduce emissions on domestic routes “from electric, hybrid, and/or hydrogen aircraft,” and predicted that by 2035 30% of domestic flights in New Zealand would be electrified.
“The leading development pathway for domestic fleet to low emission fuels is the conversion or retrofit of existing aircraft with hydrogen-electric powertrains,” they said, using the example of turboprop Q300 aircraft, a type operated by Air New Zealand, and a major focus of technology transitioners such as Universal Hydrogen. They argued that switching existing turboprops to fuel cell technology would not only enable reshaping of regulations and infrastructure for domestic operations, but also carve a path towards carbon-free narrowbody flights between New Zealand and neighbouring Australia.
Rhys Boswell, Christchurch Airport’s General Manager Strategy and Sustainability, said initiatives including the country’s first electric flight, the continued provision of ground power for aircraft using gates in its terminal, participation in a detailed industry assessment of hydrogen power, and the appointment of a major external consultancy to help identify and structure a future fuel supply strategy, were all clear steps by the airport towards decarbonising aircraft operations, in addition to substantial measures already taken to reduce emissions from its own activities, and consideration of further initiatives including sustainable financing.
“We’re optimistic that the New Zealand domestic market could be one of the first in the world to operate electric or hydrogen powered aircraft,” he said. “We’re signalling to the airlines that we’re thinking of the infrastructure investment needed to support their future operations.”
Although strongly supportive of new propulsion technologies for short to medium haul operations, Air New Zealand’s representation to the Climate Change Commission advocated strongly for the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) in New Zealand, alongside imported supplies to help ensure diversification and continuity of supply. Air New Zealand urged “an aviation-specific energy strategy”, which, among other things, incentivised SAF production, prioritised feedstock supply for low-carbon aviation fuels and established a graduated blending mandate.
“SAF is the key aviation decarbonisation technology immediately available. For long-haul air travel, SAF is the only current option for decarbonisation,” said the submission. “As well as enabling real abatement, investment in the development of a SAF sector would come with strong associated economic and social benefits to Aotearoa (New Zealand), including by creating skilled jobs benefiting regional Aotearoa in the construction and operating phases, and enabling more resilient fuel supply chains rather than relying solely on imported fuels.”
Air New Zealand said a SAF consortium, in which it is partnered with SAF specialists Scion, Z Energy, LanzaTech and LanzaJet, “has shown there is a viable pathway to SAF production in Aotearoa based on forest residues, supplemented by waste and, over time, power-to-liquid technologies.”
Another potential fuel base it identified was sugar beet, which is used in ethanol production but not currently certificated as a sustainable feedstock in New Zealand.
“Policies are needed to prioritise feedstock use for SAF production given it is more expensive to produce and is the only technology available for meaningful aviation decarbonisation,” the airline said.
Air New Zealand stated emissions reductions in New Zealand from the use of SAF would occur from 2025. It suggested enabling measures including a SAF production incentive per litre, capital grants to help establish SAF production and infrastructure, together with financial incentives for feedstocks that are sold for mandated SAF production. The SAF consortium said 200 million litres of SAF could be produced domestically by 2035 and 1,000 million litres by 2050. But, added the airline, “given the lead time that is required to establish SAF production in Aotearoa (five years), and the criticality of SAF to aviation decarbonisation, urgent action is required.”
Image: Heart ES-19 in Sounds Air livery