If you live in the U.S., the biggest part of your carbon footprint probably comes from air travel—a single round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco can add up to about two or three tons of carbon emissions per passenger. But airlines are slowly inching their way closer to truly green options.
Case in point: The tiny new E-Fan airplane from Airbus, which runs completely on electric power, might soon lead to a larger hybrid version that can take commuters on short trips.
"We have designed a completely new aircraft," says Jean Botti, the chief technical officer for Airbus. "From scratch, the E-Fan was dedicated to electric flight." Inside each wing on the carbon fiber plane, a battery pack powers a quiet electric motor. The two-seater can’t fly far—it lasts in the air for just an hour, and only flies 114 mph. But it’s an important step in designing cleaner larger planes.
"The E-Fan is a learning platform but, moreover, it is a big decisive stepping stone in our roadmap towards electric flight," Botti says. "The technical and operational experiences gained with E-Fan will serve as building blocks for improvements across our product range."
By 2017, the small plane will be used to help train new pilots how to fly. As the company continues to refine the design, everything they learn can be used to help build other electric and hybrid aircraft. Eventually, the company plans to release a regional hybrid plane that can hold 80 passengers and make short regional trips.
The airline industry is far behind automakers; we won't be flying in fully electric passenger jets anytime soon. Still, Airbus is optimistic that the industry can meet the strict EU environmental regulations laid out in a plan called Flightpath 2050. "Flightpath 2050 is ambitious: we want to have 75% less CO2 emissions, 90% less NOx and 65% less noise—all compared to the levels in the year 2000," Botti says. "But I would say we're on course."