Airbus, show us the money

William Todts — June 22, 2023

The first Le Bourget air show since COVID is set to be full of announcements of new Airbus sales and airline partnerships. But what about the hydrogen plane they promised?

In September 2020, Airbus took many by surprise, announcing a hydrogen plane by 2035. Their pledge was to revolutionise the aviation industry as we know it. Planes would go from fossil-guzzling to zero-emission in just 15 years. The announcement was made in the midst of the COVID pandemic, not long after 37€ billion of government bailouts were handed to the European aviation industry. 

Yes, hydrogen planes could be economically feasible by 2035. On this we agree with Airbus. But it seems the manufacturer is spending more time and money building the hype than the planes. Airbus’ CEO Guillaume Faury is already making excuses and talking about a possible delay of the launch complaining about a lack of green hydrogen. Then, when the EU discussed reserving its green investment label (the EU taxonomy) for zero-emission, hydrogen powered jets, Airbus objected, lobbying successfully for its current generation of kerosene-powered planes to be labelled green. 

The reality is that Airbus’ current and future product strategy centres around selling fossil fueled jets. The upcoming Le Bourget air show will be a stark reminder of this, when the manufacturer boasts agreements with airlines across the world on upcoming aircraft sales. Airbus is making a fortune selling its latest generation neo aircraft. In fact, they delivered 516 A320neo planes in 2022.

Airbus and Boeing launch a new generation of jets roughly every 20 years. The new planes historically are 15-20% more efficient than older ones. However, we are approaching the limits of incremental engine and body improvements. And of course, this is miles off the dream of a zero-emission hydrogen plane.  Airbus needs to do a lot better than 0.75-1% per year annual efficiency gains and focus instead on green fuels and hydrogen planes.

Airbus’ research & development spending confirms the suspicion. If Airbus is serious about getting a new generation of planes in the sky by 2035, its R&D spending would evolve accordingly. Sadly, there’s nothing to be seen, and we’d wager that only a fraction of its current research budget goes into designing hydrogen jets.

So is Airbus busy building hype or building planes? Admittedly, we have seen half a dozen announcements that Airbus can point to, proving its commitment to hydrogen jets: investments in a clean hydrogen infrastructure fund, partnerships with airports, or alliances to build the first liquid hydrogen refuelling facility. But we don’t see a solid industrial strategy, nor do we see a clear investment plan. 

This is why I pose three questions to Airbus: Will you spend the €15 billion needed to build these planes, as shown in a recent T&E study? Will you support policies at EU level that guarantee the development of the hydrogen market for aviation? And will you push Boeing to join you in the hydrogen race, to get these planes off the glossy PR materials and into the sky? This will help prove to investors and the industry that you’re taking these planes seriously. 

Next week, in Paris, we’ll hear too much about plane efficiency and new sales, and far too little about hydrogen planes, green fuels and demand management. So when will aircraft sales profits actually be invested in the future of green aviation? I hope not to return to Le Bourget in two years asking the exact same question. 

Originally posted on Les Echos: https://www.lesechos.fr/idees-debats/cercle/opinion-avion-a-hydrogene-ou-en-est-airbus-1955349

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