Kate Green STUFF.CO.NZ
Airports of the future: With electric planes and vertiports in the suburbs, what might our airports look like in 50 years?
December 8, 2021
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  • Sustainable aviation is at a cross-roads. Small electric planes are in the air and airports are changing. But with battery technology in its teenage years, short hops between regional airports are about the extent of electric aviation’s capabilities, making little New Zealand the ideal proving ground as the industry changes. Kate Green reports.

    Companies around the world are working toward the common goal of sustainable flight. Global emissions are still rising, despite the collective knowledge of the need to prevent it.

    Here in Aotearoa, one small airline is already signed on as the testing partner of a commercial electric aviation company, with the venture due to take off – literally – in 2026.

    As technologies evolve, planes become more efficient, biofuels hit the market and passenger numbers swell, planes will change in appearance and function – and so will the airports.

    The new planes are worlds away from what we’re used to. American company Joby Aviation’s website proclaims their craft, which fits one pilot and four passengers and is powered by six electric motors, “takes off and lands vertically, giving us the flexibility to serve almost any community”.

    “Flying with us might feel more like getting into an SUV than boarding a plane,” it says. Their end goal is an “aerial rideshare service” – like Uber in the sky.

    United States-based Eviation’s offering, charmingly named ‘Alice’, can fit nine passengers and purports to be the world’s first electric commuter aircraft.

    Otto Aviation’s Celera 500L, while not electric, optimises fuel efficiency and aerodynamics to make sizable reductions to carbon emissions.

    All this sounds wonderfully futuristic. Genius, but surely years away. But even here in New Zealand, electric flight is closer than you might think. We’re perfectly placed as a proving ground.

    Sounds Air chairman Rhyan Wardman​ said for the past year and a half, his airline had been working towards the goal of getting passengers in the air in electric planes within five years, and becoming a full electric airline by 2030.

    Their first electric aircraft would be a 19-seater made by Swedish manufacturer Heart Aerospace.

    “We very quickly understood that the early adopters of this new type of aircraft would be small regional airlines such as ourselves,” he said. “Our customers are going to expect it – they will want to travel in a way that does no harm.”

    This aircraft would be suitable for the short hops Sounds Air already flew, but as battery capacity grew, so would their range, opening up the whole of the country to electric travel.

    For passengers, it would be “a very different experience,” Wardman said – quieter, certainly, without the thrum of a combustion engine under you. “You might not know that the plane is moving.”

    With planes themselves changing, so too would airports, from big power units for charging planes to hydrogen and biofuel storage.

    Wellington Airport chief executive Steve Sanderson said the arrival of the first electric plane at Wellington Airport on November 1 provided a glimpse of what future sustainable air travel might look like.

    The airport had recently gained permission to rezone part of the land to its east to allow it to expand, and despite vehement opposition by local residents, there were a number of reasons an airport might need to expand.

    Sanderson said with smaller and more numerous electric aircraft servicing short-haul regional routes, there would be a need for more terminals and a larger apron (the area around the building where planes connected to the terminal).

    Larger, more efficient models of aircraft than were currently in service might pick up those long haul routes, likely relying on hydrogen or biofuels, which would require additional infrastructure, like hydrogen storage.

    “Whatever this mix of sustainable aircraft looks like, one thing is certain,” Sanderson said. “We will need more flexibility and more space to accommodate changes in technology as New Zealand moves toward net zero.”

    Wellington Airport had been planning for growth for some time, with a plan detailing its path to the year 2040. It includes a terminal expansion, runway and taxiway improvements, new freight facilities, additional aircraft parking, and a new fire station – and, importantly for a city who has spent more than a year without an airport bus – rapid transport from the city centre.

    Under the plans, a new multipurpose domestic and international jet terminal would be constructed. The development will extend to the south of the existing terminal, with the surrounding apron and carparking areas repurposed for jets.

    The northern parts of the terminal would be converted for regional traffic – essentially flipping the terminals around.

    A new waste management venture by Wellington City Council – a sludge-to-electricity system – has the potential to provide heat to the airport’s terminal, and the expansion will create space for a ground source heating system of its own.

    The elephant in the room, of course, is the pandemic. But Sanderson said the wider aviation industry agreed that Covid-19 had only set back growth in air travel by three to four years, expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

    “As a predominantly domestic airport, with domestic traffic accounting for 80 per cent of passenger numbers, we are ideally positioned to recover quickly from the pandemic,” he said.

    The airport has copped a lot of flak – from locals, climate advocates, even its part-owner Wellington City Council – for being seen to enable increasing carbon emissions with its expansion goals, but Sanderson said their role as an integral means of connection was recognised by the Climate Change Commission.

    “Our geography and place in the world mean alternative travel options are often not viable,” he said. “The Climate Commission also recognises aviation is difficult to decarbonise, and has set carbon budgets for the sector with this in mind.”

    “Airlines and airports are confident these carbon budgets can be met and even exceeded, and therefore New Zealand’s net zero targets can be met with a continuing role for aviation.

    Both airlines and airports had a role to play. “Though aircraft movements are increasing, aviation emissions per kilometre travelled are decreasing. Aviation CO2 emissions today are 56 per cent less per passenger kilometre than in 1990, and these improvements will continue.”

    The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has committed to reduce total aviation CO2 emissions 28 per cent below 1990 levels.

    Air New Zealand, the operator of 73 per cent of passenger seats to and from Wellington, has committed to carbon-neutral growth from 2020.

    Science philosophy professor James Maclaurin​ said it could be hard to imagine how the aviation space might change, as it wasn’t regulated in the same way as technologies with high emissions within countries, like farming or road transport.

    “There’s no clear answer on who’s paying for all the emissions and whose responsibility it is to decrease the emissions when you fly from New Zealand for some very long distance.”

    At the moment, international aviation accounted for just over 3 per cent of global emissions, but the number of people flying and the volume of goods being moved has been growing exponentially since 1950. “Some estimates say that by 2040, 2050, this could be 20 per cent of global warming, and at the moment, as you probably know, there are new technologies on the horizon, but it’s not like they’re here yet,” he said.

    “We are where road transport was 10 years ago – you know, before the the Nissan Leaf came out. And while the world waited on the Nissan Leaf of aircraft, there are problems aplenty for designers to solve.

    “Here’s the issue in a nutshell,” Maclaurin said. “When you double the weight of a plane, you quadruple the amount of energy that you need to get it up into the sky.”

    So the difference between getting a little electric two-seater airborne, and electrifying something the size of a jumbo jet, was immense. “The physics is a bit against us.”

    For a while, more smaller planes would be the most likely solution.

    “In the US, they’re predicting a renaissance in little, regional airports,” Maclaurin said. “Because just like electric cars, these things are much cheaper to run, and require very little service because there’s hardly any moving parts. So actually, suddenly, your regional airline that went out of business costs half as much to run.”

    With really futuristic glasses on, it was even possible to imagine we’d end up with two kinds of airport; traditional airports catering for long range flights, and little airports or even vertiports – similar to a helipad – for short hop planes, meaning they can be closer to, if not right within, our cities. Wellington, anyone?

    “I think there will be a lot of heat, as it were, put on aviation in the next five to ten years. So we will see change.”