As I write this, I can hear an Easyjet plane taking off outside. I’m working in my makeshift office in the loft, and I can see it out the window. Luton Airport is about a mile away from where we live, a constant background presence to life in the town.
There are issues around air pollution, traffic and noise that come with life in an airport town, though I’m side-on to the runway, so it’s not as noisy for us as it is for those who live right below the flight paths. What concerns me most is climate change. Luton Airport lives in practical denial of climate change – acknowledging it is happening, but not taking any responsibility.
Raise the question of the airport and the climate in Luton, and you can more or less count the seconds before someone mentions electric planes. It’s like a big ‘get out of jail free’ card for airport expansion. We know we can’t grow aviation and still meet our climate targets, but the answer is electric planes, not stopping the growth and jobs from the airport.
So how realistic are these expectations? Will electric planes free us to keep on biggering and biggering our airport?
To be fair, the arguments for Luton are different from Heathrow. As one study into the impact of electric planes notes, “airports such as Stansted and Luton have greater potential for electric aircraft operations as their route network is dominated by short haul flights to European airports”. There’s no hope for Heathrow, that’s just a climate disaster from start to finish. But could Luton go electric, and run as a climate friendly airport?
On one level, the answer is a tantalising maybe – a huge amount of work is going into electric planes, as I’ve described before. But it’s all a long way off, and the climate is breaking faster than we can invent fantasy clean aeroplanes. As Bill McKibben says, “winning slowly is the same as losing”. So a more honest answer is ‘no, not on any relevant timescale’.
Today, there is no such thing as an electric passenger airliner. It doesn’t exist. Until very recently, the only electric planes were one-seater stunt planes that could fly for 20 minutes. There are a handful of other small planes now, and in June this year, the world’s first electric passenger plane was unveiled at the Paris air show. It is expected to be flying commercially in 2022, but it only carries nine people.
Part of the reason that electric planes get talked about in Luton is that Easyjet are based here, and they talk a lot about them. “I’ve heard Easyjet are on the case” as someone told me recently. I’ve even heard people say that we should support the airport, because a thriving aviation sector is vital to creating sustainable planes. But the last time Easyjet’s press office mentioned it, progress amounted to a patent for a possible engine, filed by their partner company Wright Electric.
Wright Electric are a young company with a typical tech startup website. There’s a bold ambition – “every short flight to be zero-emissions within 20 years” – a jobs page and a blog. They are yet to build a plane of any kind, and their first will be a hybrid nine seater aimed at the luxury private plane market. It’s possible that Wright Electric are genuises who will change the world. It’s equally possible that their hatful of ideas will provide little more than convenient greenwash for Easyjet. If they do deliver a viable airliner to Easyjet by 2027, as is being suggested, it will be remarkable – and nobody will be more pleased than me.
Oh, and for all the talk about electric planes, this four year old startup is the only one working on a large passenger plane, and it will only be able to do regional flights and nearby European destinations. Nobody is working on a plane that would get to Southern or Eastern Europe, let alone long haul flights – which represent 73% of Britain’s aviation emissions.
Luton has a lot of private planes and luxury business jets. Those are the most likely to go electric, and that will make a difference – they will be cleaner and quieter over the town as well as better for the climate. But they’re a small part of the overall problem. There is no electric solution to the most polluting planes in the sky.
Luton is not Heathrow, either in scope or in seriousness. But it is still one of the fastest growing sources of carbon emissions in the country. Emissions should have peaked already if we are going to avoid two degrees of warming. We cannot wait for electric planes. They are not coming to the rescue, and in an age of climate breakdown, Luton airport cannot ethically expand.