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How electric planes could revolutionize commercial aviation

The electric plane engine, up to 70% cheaper to operate, is one of Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas honorees for 2020.

How electric planes could revolutionize commercial aviation
Capacity: The plane can carry up to six people; MagniX also designed an electric system for an 9-passenger Eviation plane that will begin test flights later this year. [Illustration: John Devolle]

Last December, a small seaplane soared over Vancouver, marking the world’s first electric commercial aircraft flight. For Harbour Air, it was a first step toward its goal of operating an all-electric, zero-carbon fleet. For MagniX, the startup that makes the electric propulsion system inside the plane, it was a turning point. Within a little more than a decade, the company argues, every flight less than 1,000 miles could run on electricity. Here are three potential benefits:

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Power source: The fuel tanks in the belly of the retrofitted plane have been replaced by batteries. [Illustration: John Devolle]

Zero emissions

CO2 emissions from planes are on track to triple by 2050 and use as much as a quarter of the world’s remaining carbon budget. “The quicker the industry moves to electric aircraft, the sooner we can start to reverse the trend,” says Roei Ganzarski, MagniX’s CEO.

Seaplane: The modified plane, originally built in 1962, is a classic seaplane designed to land on water. [Illustration: John Devolle]

Lower costs

The up-front cost of building an electric plane is similar to that of an ordinary plane, but the electric version is 50% to 70% cheaper to operate, requiring no fuel and less maintenance, which could enable airlines to cut ticket prices.

Lightweight: In the plane’s nose, the combustion engine has been swapped out for a smaller, lightweight, nearly silent electric motor. [Illustration: John Devolle]

Reviving airports

Current electric planes may be limited in size, but these small planes could operate from the thousands of regional airports that airlines don’t currently use, making flying more convenient and TSA lines shorter. “I think that people will embrace the flexibility in how and where they fly for a lower price point,” Ganzarski says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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