Air New Zealand and the French plane manufacturer Avions de Transport Regional (ATR) have signed an agreement to explore the possibility of using hybrid or electric aircraft on New Zealand’s domestic and regional routes.
Under the agreement, the partners will look into the development of propulsion systems, the infrastructure required to support them including airport and regulatory framework, maintenance, ground and flight operations, the airline said in a statement on its website.
"Hybrid aircraft are expected to enter the market in the next decade or so,” Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said. “Depending on when hybrid and electric technologies become available for larger turbo-prop aircraft, we believe there is potential for these to be a viable option for our regional network."
With New Zealand's renewable electricity supply and airline’s regional network, the country is the “ideal test bed for these technologies”, he said.
Air New Zealand and ATR are not the first collaboration to develop alternative propulsion systems. The German technology company Siemens and its partner Airbus want hybrid aircraft to take to the air commercially by 2030. Electric propulsion is expected to become a norm by 2050, although other technologies such as hydrogen-powered aircraft are also being considered, Johannes Wollenberg, who is part of Siemens’ eAircraft team developing hybrid electric propulsion system, said in September.
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The development of a propulsion systems for commercial use would affect the global aviation industry. Airlines around the world will have to consider major investment choices in the future when new hybrid systems come into play. Companies may have to phase out conventional planes, which cannot be viably altered or retro fitted to accommodate new technologies.
"Our regional fleet accounts for approximately 40 per cent of our domestic emissions so there's an enormous opportunity for carbon savings,” he said. “It could be a significant contributor to us reaching our twin goals of carbon neutral growth from 2020 and reducing emissions to 50 per cent of 2005 levels by 2050."
Air New Zealand currently operates 27 ATR turbo-prop aircraft on regional routes. Last month, the airline said it will partner with Zephyr Airworks, a flying car start-up backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, to bring autonomous, electric air taxis to the country, according to Bloomberg.