Air New Zealand plans to introduce at least one zero emission aircraft type for commercial service on regional routes by 2026, as it evaluates technologies to replace or decarbonise its 23 Q300 turboprops from 2030. The announcement follows an invitation earlier this year to global aerospace partners for novel propulsion concepts to reduce emissions and operating costs of regional flights in New Zealand. At a briefing in Auckland, and coinciding with the publication of its latest Sustainability Report, the airline said the process attracted 30 official responses, including 22 from start-up companies, and produced 40 new aircraft concepts. Of these, 24% were battery powered, 38% were hydrogen powered and 38% were hybrid solutions. Airbus, a key partner in the Air New Zealand programme, also told the briefing that it saw “strong potential” to develop a hydrogen hub cluster in New Zealand as part of the airline’s shift to zero emission flight, as well as its own Zero-e programme to develop a family of hydrogen-powered planes.
Baden Smith, Air New Zealand’s Centre of Excellence Lead for Fleet Strategy and Delivery, said the novel propulsion programme was part of the airline’s ‘Flight NZ0’ project, and had grown out of the company’s initial search for a Q300 replacement. “There was nothing that was strongly compelling for us,” he said. “But some interesting technology was starting to bubble up.” Rather than commit to an upgraded version of existing aircraft, which could quickly become redundant with the shift to low-or-no emission flight, he said Air New Zealand decided to use the Q300 replacement process as an opportunity to explore new concepts. “This is the first time since the 1960s that this airline has gone out to manufacturers and told them ‘This is what we want. We know what you can build. But this is what we want.’ And we’ve found that being able to develop and operate a zero-emissions aircraft is a possibility.”
Smith said Airbus had been selected by Air New Zealand as a partner on hydrogen technologies, while regional turboprop manufacturer ATR was a partner on hybrid propulsion solutions, and revealed others would be announced in coming weeks. By the end of 2023, “one, maybe two aircraft solutions” would be chosen for introduction by 2026 to evaluate potential replacement technologies. “A technical demonstrator is not what we’re after,” he said. “We want to fly this thing commercially. We recognise how challenging it is – and that it’s almost ridiculous by 2026. But without doing this, we won’t achieve our next decade targets.”
By 2030, the airline wants either a replacement aircraft or a new zero carbon emissions propulsion system to retrofit into its Q300 fleet. It is also exploring the potential to deploy small, zero-emission aircraft on short regional routes and has previously flagged early trials of such planes for tasks such pilot training or freight.
Anand Stanley, VP Asia Pacific for Airbus, said the abundance of renewable energy produced in New Zealand, together with the extensive regional network of Air New Zealand, provided great opportunities to assess how zero-emission aircraft could fit into an airline network. “New Zealand is the ideal test environment,” he said. “Here, 80% of electricity is supplied from renewable sources, and 60% of flights domestically are over distances less than 300 kilometres. We see strong potential to develop a hydrogen hub cluster in New Zealand.”
Air New Zealand’s search for new technology aircraft has five objectives: to reduce carbon emissions from short-haul aircraft, to lower the energy use per flight, to cut noise levels inside and outside aircraft, to lower maintenance costs and to reduce obligations to comply with New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme. Potential solutions range from zero-emission aircraft of up to nine seats to new propulsion systems transplanted into existing aircraft.
To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the airline will rely on sustainable aviation fuels to halve its flight emissions, targeting 1% SAF use in 2023 and 10% by 2030. Novel propulsion systems such as hydrogen, electric or hybrid engines are expected to reduce emissions by 20%, fleet renewal by a further 20% and operational efficiences by 2%, with residual emissions addressed through other carbon reduction measures.
The airline recently procured 1.2 million litres of SAF to help power some of its internal flights and also to test and help develop a supply chain for imported SAFs while the country assesses the establishment of local production capacity.
Air New Zealand’s CEO, Greg Foran, said urgent action was needed to decarbonise aviation, and his airline wanted to be one of those leading the change. “This is one of those wicked problems that we need to solve,” he said. “You get one point for talking and nine points for doing. We’re past the point of saying ‘We can just talk about this’. We’re now at an inflection point. We need to get on with it.”
Air New Zealand has just released its 2022 Sustainability Report, which states its 2030 interim science-based target was validated in July by the SBTi. The airline commits to reduce well-to-wake GHG emissions related to jet fuel by 28.9% per RTK from owned operations, equivalent to a 16.3% absolute reduction by 2030 from a 2019 base year and gross emissions reductions from 4.7 MtCO2e to 3.9 MtCO2e.
The report was guided by an independent sustainability advisory panel chaired by Sir Jonathon Porritt, founder of the Forum for the Future. In his foreword, he writes: “There can be few people who now doubt that accelerating climate change represents a massive challenge for governments and businesses the world over. But not many yet understand the true nature of this crisis, with disruption from more and more climate-induced disasters becoming ever more deadly – and costly.
“Air New Zealand has recognised this challenge for a long time and is only too aware of the limitations of the technical solutions available to it. In that regard, its most important decarbonisation commitment is to source 10% of its fuel from sustainable aviation fuels by 2030, along the way to its net zero target by 2050.
“There will be some airlines that get really good at this and other climate challenges, and many that don’t. Air New Zealand has made a great start by becoming only the second airline in the world to have its science-based target officially validated back in July, committing to reduce carbon intensity by 28.9% by 2030 from a 2019 baseline.”
Photo: Air New Zealand Q300 at Whangarei District Airport, on New Zealand’s North Island