New deal means United Airlines may be flying hydroelectric planes as early as 2028


Part of United’s new investment in hydrogen-electric aircraft engine company ZeroAvia is an agreement to buy 100 zero-emissions engines that could be retrofitted onto existing aircraft.

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A mockup of a United CRJ-550 outfitted with ZeroAvia’s ZA2000-RJ zero-emission hydroelectric engines.

Image: ZeroAvia

The “friendly skies” airline is about to add environmental friendliness to its fleet, as United Airlines has entered into an investment agreement with hydro-electric engine company ZeroAvia that could see United aircraft retrofitted with zero-emissions engines as early as 2028.

This isn’t the first foray into electric and other alternative fuels for aircraft for United. Early in 2021 it announced a partnership with aviation startup Archer, which is working on a vTOL short-range air taxi that United has made a 200-unit purchase commitment for. 

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Fully electric aircraft are still likely a ways off, with the weight of fuel needed to power a large commercial jet likely too heavy for liftoff even before cargo or passengers. As an alternative, said United CEO Scott Kirby, hydrogen-electric fuel cells are currently where the real progress is at. 

“Hydrogen-electric engines are one of the most promising paths to zero-emission air travel for smaller aircraft, and this investment will keep United out in front on this important emerging technology,” Kirby said. 

Its multiple investments in green aircraft technology are part of an aggressive strategy at United of completely eliminating its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, all without relying on carbon offsets to buy its way out of polluting. “United continues to look for opportunities to not only advance our own sustainability initiatives but also identify and help technologies and solutions that the entire industry can adopt,”Kirby said. 

Where to book your hydroelectric plane ticket

ZeroAvia completed successful flights of its hydrogen-electric fuel cell engine using a six-seater Piper M-class turboprop in late 2020, and ZeroAvia said that it’s on track to achieve commercialization for its engine by 2024. 

ZeroAvia’s plans for 2024 are engines capable of powering a 10-20 seat aircraft with a 500-mile range, and the investment round that United has gotten in on is for the next challenge: 40-80 seat aircraft by 2026 and regional jets by 2028. 

United said that one potential use for the engines would be on its CRJ-550 50-seat regional jet, pictured at the top of this article in a concept image from ZeroAvia. The 550 is billed as “the only 50-seat aircraft which offers first class an other premium amenities,” and is operated by United’s Express regional subsidiary. 

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United’s investment in ZeroAvia is funding the development of the ZA2000-RJ engine, which is the regional jet engine with the 2028 goal mentioned above. That’s as far as ZeroAvia has projected its goals into the future, so if you’re expecting a trans-atlantic hydro-electric flight to visit Europe in a few years, you’ll probably be waiting for a while.

Still, if you travel around the country often for business and are worried about the fossil fuel toll of air travel, United is going to be the likely choice by the next decade if its trend of sustainable investment continues. “The United Express routes powered by hydrogen-electric aircraft will be enabling large numbers of passengers to take zero-emission flights well within this decade,” said Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia. 

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