Airbus is working on three hydrogen airplane concepts, with the ambition of being “the first manufacturer to put such a device into service in 2035”. In an exclusive interview, Guillaume Faury, CEO of the European aircraft manufacturer, reveals the outlines of a program that will revolutionize aviation.
The French government is increasing the pressure for the development of a hydrogen aircraft in 2035. Is Airbus ready to take up the challenge?
GUILLAUME FAURY. Not only are we ready, but it has been our goal for several years. Five years ago, imagining a zero-emission aircraft in 2035 seemed futuristic. Today, that is no longer the case, because we have made great progress. Especially since developing a carbon-free aircraft does not require a major technological breakthrough. Hydrogen, we know at Airbus, we already use it in our rockets and our satellites. But we still need five years to compete several technologies, mature them and choose the best for the aircraft. It will then take us two years to find suppliers, industrial sites, etc. Therefore, the program is scheduled for around 2028. Our ambition is to be the first manufacturer to put such a device into service in 2035.
How much are you investing to develop this program?
The order of magnitude is several tens of billions of euros for a program of this type. But that’s not all that matters. Two other questions are very important. To be sure that these investments will not be at a loss, the regulatory framework must evolve by 2035, and the use of hydrogen in commercial aircraft must be authorized. It will also be necessary for the infrastructure at the airports to be ready and for “green” hydrogen to be available in large quantities.
We have the impression that on hydrogen, everything is accelerating with the Covid-19 crisis …
On our side, we did not wait for the Covid to believe it. But, it’s true, the support plans put in place by European governments to enable us to keep our roadmap have made this subject much more visible. From the moment the States put money in, it is normal that they expect a form of return on investment and that they ask us for more important commitments, at more precise dates, on the availability of solutions.
What will this plane look like?
We reveal three concepts. The first is a configuration aircraft classic up to 200 seats with a radius of action to cover more than 3,500 km (Editor’s note: see the infographic below). The second will be a propeller plane, capable of carrying around 100 passengers, for shorter journeys. The third is more disruptive: it is a concept of a flying wing of approximately 200 places which allows to study a completely different configuration for the storage of hydrogen and the propulsion. We believe these three concepts foreshadow what the first Airbus could look like zero emissions. The hydrogen on board will be stored in liquid form.
In 2011, EADS, at the time parent company of Airbus, presented with great fanfare a zero-emission supersonic aircraft project, which we have not heard from. How can you guarantee that this time the project will be completed?
Because the carbon-free airplane is the company’s priority strategic axis today. And that in ten years, the issues of global warming or energy have become much more present in our societies.
The Concorde was a technological feat, but a commercial failure. The commercial success of the hydrogen airplane does not depend only on you, but also on the evolution of the regulatory framework and the development of this new fuel. It’s a risky bet, isn’t it?
If we had to wait for guarantees, we would never undertake! On the question of fuel, one can very well imagine the creation of a European hydrogen economy in the years to come. Also, we won’t need thousands of supply pumps, only a few at the airports where we will be operating the front lines. On regulations, we are lucky to have an international structure, the ICAO (Editor’s note: International Civil Aviation Organization), which took up the subject.
The plane is regularly accused of having a heavy ecological impact, unlike the train. Is this project a way of responding to criticism?
To say that there is a big ecological problem with the plane compared to the train… There is a form of blindness in these remarks which stuns me! On the move, the plane emits more CO2, it’s a truth. You have to look it in the face to treat it, that’s what we do. But in all other respects it is wrong. The plane does not damage every kilometer it travels. For the train, it is necessary to create an infrastructure on the ground which upsets the flora and fauna and disfigures the landscapes. Because you have to dig holes in the mountains, build bridges over valleys, divert rivers. And that emits a lot of CO2 when the infrastructure is created. Whereas with a plane, we create a runway at the start, another at the finish and that’s it.
Are the companies ready to follow you?
This question does not make much sense today. It is still a long way off for them, compared to their current problem of survival in which they find themselves because of the current crisis. On the other hand, they clearly encourage us to continue on this path. They will also need to know the specifications of the aircraft by 2035 to decide whether or not to buy.
Passengers will also have to be convinced. In the history of aviation, hydrogen flights ended badly …
In our industry, flight safety is the number one priority. As with every technological breakthrough, it will be necessary to gain the confidence of passengers. But we have fifteen years to achieve this and reassure. And, by then, other means of transport will have switched to hydrogen. Passengers will have familiarized themselves with this technology. The first hydrogen cars are already rolling in Paris, and that doesn’t pose a problem for anyone.
You announced a plan of 4,248 job cuts in France. In a recent internal communication, you indicated that one had to expect dry layoffs, which provoked strong reactions among your employees …
You didn’t read my sentence. I told them that it was likely that voluntary departures would not be enough. I also said that we were doing everything we could to manage this in the most socially acceptable and human way possible. I am neither threatening nor igniting the powder. I am simply explaining that we are having a very important negotiation and that we have to find mechanisms.
The unions took this sentence as a way to prepare the minds for a performance agreement …
I said it as it is, with a desire for transparency and clarity. We have work to do, it makes everyone face up to their responsibilities.
The aviation industry is facing the most serious crisis in its history. Is Airbus threatened?
Who can say today, given the level of uncertainty and tension in the world, that they feel completely protected? If we do what is necessary today to adapt and remain competitive, we will get there.
Are you going to have to lower your production?
We reduced production by 40% from the start of the crisis to survive and not be threatened in our existence. We went from 60 A320 family aircraft produced per month to 40. On long-haul flights, we went from ten aircraft per month, on the A350 family, before the crisis, to six and then five per month. For this reason, we had to put in place a savings plan. Are there any other plans? There will probably be small adjustments. But at this stage, I think that we are more or less well settled in relation to the crisis. But we are saying very clearly to governments around the world, including in Europe, that it is absolutely necessary to restart air traffic in an efficient way in the second part of 2020 and essentially in the first part of 2021. Otherwise, there will be many more breakages for the airlines and obviously repercussions for the manufacturers and all the suppliers.