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A new startup is dreaming of zero-emission airliners

by Mike Consol

The environment argument for a zero-emission airliner is clear, but executives at Wright Electric get more excited about the economic argument. Jet fuel is the biggest cost of an air carrier’s operation, which is why spiking oil prices almost instantly result in spiking ticket prices.

Consider that a Boeing 737 burns 1,000 gallons of fuel during a 500-mile flight. Though jet fuel prices vary wide, Wright Electric says $2.50 per gallon (a middle ground between today’s cheap prices and the high prices from 2012) calculates to about $1,500 in fuel costs for a 300-mile flight. Wright Electric’s goal is for every short flight — 300 miles or less — to be flown by electric aircraft within 20 years. By the company’s calculation, that $1,500 flight covering 300 miles would cost just under $800, or about half the price.

Short-haul flights of 300 miles or less account for 30 percent of all flights and comprise a market valued at $26 billion. Wright Electric is building a 150-seat plane that it believes can disrupt the Boeing 737 market. Its technology has been enough to capture the attention of budget British air carrier EasyJet.

“Easyjet has had discussions with Wright Electric and is actively providing an airline operator’s perspective on the development of this exciting technology,” the airline told the BBC.

Founded in 2016, Wright Electric says the first plane, the Wright One, is being designed for flights that cover air corridors such as New York-to-Boston, London-to-Paris, and Seoul-to-Jeju.

“Our plane has to be so much cheaper that it’s a no-brainer,” the company wrote in a recent blog post. “For context, Boeing built the 787 to achieve 20 percent fuel savings over the 767. Fuel is such an expensive component of flying that 20 percent was considered sufficient to justify the development costs of a new plane. In our case, the Wright One has the potential to achieve fuel savings of as much as 50 percent.”

Wright Electric hired a team that had been previously funded by NASA to investigate the potential for electric planes, which company co-founder Jeff Engler says puts the startup years ahead of the competition.

 

This article appears in the May issue of Real Assets Advisers. For more information on this magazine or to sign up for a trial subscription, click here.

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