Rex will trial the use of planes with retrofitted electric engines on short regional flights of under one hour as soon as 2024.
According to the airline’s deputy chairman John Sharp, one of Rex’s 34-seat Saab 340s — retrofitted with an electric and hydrogen-powered MagniX engine — will be used to trial the technology on short routes such as Adelaide-Mount Gambier.
“We will be doing trials in 2024, with a real aircraft, where we’ll swap out the existing engine, which burns jet fuel,” Sharp told the ABC. “And we’ll put in an electric motor that will be supported by a combination of both batteries and hydrogen.”
He said the trial will be an important part of the regulatory process, before more planes can be fitted with electric engines.
“It will require all the approvals of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to ensure it’s all safe,” he said.
“But I expect that we’ll be seeing this happening in this decade, which is something I would not have thought possible three years ago.”
Rex revealed last week that it had partnered up with Dovetail Electric Aviation — owned by the same company as tourist operator Sydney Seaplanes — to bring electric-powered regional aircraft to Australia by 2026, by converting existing turbine engines into electric-powered, zero-emission variants.
Specifically, the two will work to “develop and certify” the retrofitting of electric engines onto legacy regional aircraft, which Dovetail says could shave years off the timeline involved in engineering and certifying a brand-new electric-powered aircraft.
Retrofitting existing aircraft with new, zero-emission electric propulsion will make the converted aircraft up to 40 per cent quieter than its predecessors, and see a similar percentage reduction in operating costs.
Under the deal, Rex will provide an aircraft to be used as a test for the project, as well as offering up its own resources for engineering, MRO, and storage throughout.
“It’s dramatically different,” Sharp said. “The electric motors are inherently safe — they’re probably safer than any other form of motor.
“The other good thing is that it will produce far less carbon emissions — basically, none. That will help contribute towards our national objective of reducing carbon emissions over the next few years.”
The airline’s deputy chairman said that the new technology could also result in lower airfares for regional passengers, as well a the introduction of new regional air routes that were previously deemed unviable.
“[This technology has] got three benefits — one being the potential for lower airfares,” Sharp said.
“But secondly, it means that routes that are marginal routes that we operate now that really — you wonder whether you should bother to continue to do them — it’ll make those routes viable for the long-term.
“And it will open up new opportunities in the towns and cities where you would not have thought it would be viable to operate a regional air service.
“All of a sudden, those towns will suddenly become viable and [we’ll] be able to extend the network into communities that currently don’t have regional air service.”
One CASA certifies these retrofitted aircraft, Rex and Dovetail hope to see electric aircraft conversion centres across the country and the globe, with sights already set on Europe and Singapore.
The technology could also later be used to convert larger aircraft into electric-powered planes.