Air New Zealand joins Airbus hydrogen airliner project

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Air New Zealand is supporting Airbus efforts to develop hydrogen-powered airliners through a joint research initiative on how these could help the Asia-Pacific carrier meet its zero-emissions goal net of carbon by 2050. Under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed on September 16, the airline will analyze how the use of hydrogen propulsion would change its service network, operations and infrastructure, Airbus providing performance requirements and ground operations characteristics for the new aircraft.

Twelve months ago, Airbus unveiled three concepts for possible hydrogen airliners that it believes could be ready to enter service by 2035. Under a project called Zero E, Airbus is planning to make a final decision on the most suitable hydrogen technology platform in 2024 and be ready to fly a first technology demonstrator in 2025. This year, engineers worked on the development of a ground-based demonstrator for hydrogen ready to help it cope with the complex technological risks around the ecosystem for hydrogen energy, such as fuel volume and cryogenic (low temperature) characteristics.

The newest of the three models shows a mixed-wing airframe that Airbus says would be capable of carrying up to 200 passengers on flights of around 2,000 nm. The unusually wide fuselage, in which the wing merges with the main section of the aircraft, would provide space for a cabin, as well as for storage and distribution of hydrogen.

Airbus also presented a more conventional narrow-body model that would carry between 120 and 200 passengers over sectors of around 2,000 nm. The propulsion system would be based on a pair of modified gas turbine engines powered by liquid hydrogen which would be stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead. The design features swept-back outer wing surfaces.

The third model is a 100-seat twin-turboprop. It would also include modified hydrogen-powered gas turbines and would have a projected range of up to around 1,000 nm.

Given the scope projections for the Zero E concepts, the aircraft would support Air New Zealand’s entire domestic flight network. Hydrogen-powered airliners could also be deployed on services to cities on the east and south coasts of Australia, as well as to certain destinations in the Pacific Ocean such as the Cook Islands and Fiji.

According to the carrier’s CEO, Greg Foran, he believes he could introduce hydrogen-powered planes to domestic and regional flights within the next decade. “New Zealand has a unique opportunity to be a global leader in adopting zero emission aircraft, given the country’s commitment to renewable energies that can be used to generate green hydrogen and our regional air network connected, “he said.

The airline is also evaluating battery-powered electric aircraft as possible options for shorter domestic routes, as well as sustainable aviation fuel for its long-haul operations. “This research will help inform future decision making as we work to decarbonize the airline,” Foran explained.

Captain David Morgan, Air New Zealand’s head of operational integrity and safety, said the terms of the MoU give the airline the opportunity to help design and define how the Planned Zero E aircraft could meet its operational needs. “We will work closely with Airbus to understand the opportunities and challenges, including the achievable range of flight and any changes in ground infrastructure or logistics that may be required to implement this technology in New Zealand,” he added.

Airbus Asia-Pacific President Anand Stanley said the joint study will generate feedback on airline expectations and preferences for the configuration and performance of new airliners. He explained that Air New Zealand had been asked to cooperate because of its strong commitment to environmental sustainability, which he said is closely aligned with the aircraft maker’s own goals for decarbonization.

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