Will Boris’s Jet Zero ever fly?

The prime minister’s call for Jet Zero on Tuesday may owe more to his fondness for a punchy slogan than any realistic view of how UK aviation might develop in the next three decades.

“We should set ourselves the goal now of producing the world’s first zero-emission long-haul passenger plane,” Boris Johnson said. “Jet Zero, let’s do it!”

But as far as the technology goes, Johnson might have more luck building a garden bridge to France than getting British-made, long-haul, zero-emission passenger planes in service before 2050.

Short-range electric flight is, for the very smallest planes, already a reality. Multiple firms, including UK start-ups, are working on zero-emission eVtols – electric vertical take-off and landing craft, or flying taxis – but the concepts are primarily for domestic inter-city travel, with only a handful of passengers on board.

Battery weight and range means that manufacturers currently view larger electric planes as feasible only for short-haul flights – and even then the focus is largely on hybrid-electric, with jet fuel needed for take-off.

The big UK contribution to this vision, a Rolls-Royce-Airbus collaboration called the E-Fan X, was quietly canned during lockdown.

EasyJet, should it survive, has long spoken of its hopes for a short-haul electric regional plane, and engine trials with a partner in the US, they say, have been encouraging.

Meanwhile, work continues at Cranfield university and elsewhere, trying to convince sceptics that hydrogen could eventually be a viable fuel for passenger jets.

Plants to produce synthetic jet fuels could be part of a net-zero mix (although not zero-emission when burned in flight). Low-emission flight – rather than no-emission – is currently the overwhelming ambition of civil aviation engineers.

Johnson’s target for a UK-built long-haul zero-emission plane before 2050 may, alas, swiftly crash-land with reality.



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