Britain's easyJet aims for electric short-haul flights

LONDON (Reuters) - British budget airline easyJet EZJ.L could be flying electric passenger jets on short-haul routes within a decade in a push to cut plane pollution, the company said on Wednesday.

The airline said in March it would partner with U.S. startup Wright Electric to develop electric passenger jets and is aiming for planes with a range of up to 335 miles (540 km), which could fly about 20 percent of easyJet’s routes.

EasyJet said its support for electric planes was part of a broader strategy to reduce carbon and nitrous oxide emissions in the aviation sector, following the lead taken by the rail and automotive industries.

“For the first time, our industry can envisage a future which isn’t wholly reliant on jet fuel and its harmful CO2 and NOX emissions,” CEO Carolyn McCall said in a statement.

The airline is already targeting a 10 percent cut in emissions per passenger per kilometer by 2022 by using more fuel-efficient jets, such as the new Airbus A320neo. The airline has two so far and 98 are on order for delivery by August 2022.

Fuel is one of the biggest costs for airlines and they have been investing in ways to reduce the amount they use, including by buying new aircraft with more fuel-efficient engines.

Airlines such as Lufthansa LHAG.DE, Air France-KLM AIRF.PA and Virgin Atlantic [VA.UL] have also been researching alternative fuels.

Airbus AIR.PA has been developing electric planes and flew its two-seater E-Fan across the channel in 2015, but it expects hybrid fuel systems to come in first for commercial jets - until the batteries needed for electric-only planes become lighter.

EasyJet also said it was partnering with French company Safran SAF.PA to trial a zero-emissions taxiing system for its aircraft, while electric tugs will be introduced at Gatwick.

Peter Duffy, easyJet’s chief commercial officer, told reporters at London’s Gatwick airport that new technologies could “entirely remove the use of carbon fuels and noise from all our airport operations”.

British Airways ICAG.L said this week it was now using remote-controlled electric tugs to push its short-haul aircraft away from departure gates.

Investors and analysts were also focused on an easyJet capital markets day being held at Gatwick.

While easyJet was not providing any trading updates, analysts at broker Goodbody said, “despite this, we still think the market will be pleasantly surprised by details behind the group’s ancillary revenue streams and innovation on this front”.

One such move to boost revenues is a trial of inflight entertainment, which will be introduced on five aircraft in easyJet’s Swiss operations in autumn.

Rather than seat-back screens, the system will allow customers to watch TV shows on their own devices, a model used by others including Lufthansa's Eurowings LHAG.DE.

EasyJet said the service would earn the airline extra revenue, despite being free for the customer to use.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; additional reporting by Victoria Bryan; editing by David Clarke