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The World's First Hybrid Plane Is Here

Introducing a new type of airplane: One that works on a hydrogen hybrid system.

The new concept will be embraced by easyJet, the cheapie that operates in 27 European cities. But this is no publicity stunt—it's happening precisely because the airline is so stingy.

The new aircraft, an adapted Airbus A320 to be called A320neo, will use a hydrogen battery to power part of its journey. It won't be able to go zero-emissions in the air—modern jets require too much thrust for that given current technology. Instead, it will operate a bit like a Toyota Prius: When it lands, it will store the immense energy created by braking and use that to move around on the ground. 

Using a rechargeable battery for taxiing is projected to eliminate the need for gate towing and be between 13 and 15 percent more fuel efficient than the standard A320. That will save easyJet an estimated 50,000 tons of fuel a year, reportedly cutting between $25 and $35 million in its annual expenses. Theoretically, airlines could pass that savings to customers. Realistically, they won't.

Still, there are benefits. "The new quieter aircraft will reduce our impact on the communities who live near our airports," said an Airbus statement

As a bonus, pure water is a natural by-product of hydrogen cells, and that water could be used in the lavatories or even recycled for on-board drinking.

Lufthansa was the first airline to put the A320 into service last month without much fanfare (and with less legroom than its standard planes) on a flight between Frankfurt and Munich. Turkish Airlines and Gulf Air are among other airlines that have ordered the "Neo" aircraft. But easyJet has put the largest stake in the new aircraft, purchasing some 100 planes so far with options on as many more.

Airbus is expanding the types of aircraft with the hybrid capability. On Feburary 9 a larger version, the A321neo, performed a five-hour test flight in Germany.

The idea of eliminating powered taxiing is not new to the airline industry. Virgin's Richard Branson, a noted environmentalist, proposed that all airlines cut their engines while waiting for take-off a decade ago. But it never happened, and this is the first attempt by a major airline to put the concept into practice using current technology. 



Photo credit: Lufthansa