Zero emissions all-electric airplanes are a tremendous step forward but they have limitations. They do not contribute to climate change, they are quiet and cheaper to maintain. They have a steeper rate of climb and are able to maintain performance at higher altitudes where the air resistance is less than at lower altitudes. However, they have small payloads and they can only travel a fraction of the distance of traditional planes at less than half the speed. We know that transportation is a major source of climate change-causing greenhouse gases and air travel is a problem not only because of emissions but due to the fact that they are released into the upper atmosphere. Clearly, we need alternatives to traditional air travel. Decarbonization through electrification is the holy grail of transportation, however, air travel poses unique challenges. These hurdles will need to be overcome to make this a more viable mainstream option.
Here is a review of some of the major issues confronting the electrification of air travel. Battery capacity remains a major limitation as lithium batteries are as yet nowhere near as energy-dense as liquid fuels. Battery cooling is another issue and inverters need to be developed specifically for air travel.
While there are electric planes on the market none of these planes are capable of flights longer than 100 miles. Only 5 percent of global airline flights are 160 kilometers (100 miles) or less. With a top speed of 337 KPH (210 MPH) these planes are also slower than traditional aircraft.
There are unique design options that can help to make electric planes more viable. This includes smaller wings, more motors, and better aerodynamics. We will also need to see regulations developed to accommodate electric flight. There is little doubt that electric aircraft are highly desirable but we have yet to develop the technologies that would give them widespread commercial appeal.