A New British OEM?
While approaches and circumstances may differ, there is clear consensus across the UK aerospace sector on the key challenges to achieving zero-carbon heavier-than-air commercial flight, and a shared sense of positivity that they can be met.
One question, however, seems to have divided opinion: could the UK once again manufacture commercial aircraft?
Today's OEMs are transnational entities, with supply chains that stretch around the globe. Creating a new company capable of competing with Airbus, Boeing and Embraer appears an unfeasible proposition.
But zero-carbon flight is changing the paradigm once again. The Islander, designed by Britten-Norman in the early 1960s, has—perhaps counterintuitively—become an emblem of this new era. Companies including Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, ZeroAvia and others are developing hydrogen powertrains that can be retrofitted to the venerable aircraft and see small regional operators among the first to offer zero-carbon passenger flights. In theory, this will see the UK consolidate its position as a supplier of complex technologies to transnational airframers.
"We have primes in the UK who are well placed and, compared to the size of our economy, the UK is well ahead proportionally in aerospace," says Simon Webb, a 20-year Rolls Royce staffer who now heads zero-carbon work at the Aerospace Technology Institute, a government-funded body that develops the nation's aerospace technology strategy. "I think that to protect and expand that position is the best use of taxpayers' money around this new technology,” Webb says. “That's a lower-risk way to do it, and we can still have very high returns by building on what we already have."
There are other companies developing clean-sheet designs for future regional aircraft which should be able to more fully exploit the benefits of low- or zero-carbon propulsion. These businesses do not have extant programs they can offer subsystems to. And even some developers of retrofit systems argue that the UK should be looking to get back into the whole-airplane business.
"I believe very strongly that just investing in the subsystem technologies—as the UK has done for the last three or four decades, to keep our place on the supply chain for aircraft manufactured abroad—is really important, but it's not enough," says Paul Hutton, CEO of Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS).
CAeS holds what Hutton describes as "a surprisingly broad and deep range" of approvals, and counts almost all the big aerospace OEMs among its client base. Yet even this combination of reputation and capability offers no guarantees of long-term viability.
"Having the world's biggest aerospace companies coming to us and trusting us is fantastic from a reference point of view, but from a financial forecasting point of view, and for the ability to grow your business, it's rubbish," he says.
"You're completely at the whim of the discretionary spend of those huge companies. It was great when one of those would do a big project, but if they stopped the project halfway through, it completely killed us."
CAeS therefore pivoted to act more like an OEM, and run its own projects.
“Nobody's been investing in subregional for decades because the prevailing wisdom was you needed a big airplane to get your cost per passenger-mile down,” Hutton says. “But fixed-wing using a runway gives you advantages when you're trying to get something in the air that is immature technology. That's why we picked the Islander. It gives us the ability to control our own destiny because we've got our own project."
Over at Duxford Airport, Neil Cloughley has come to a similar set of conclusions. His startup, Faradair, lacks the approvals CAeS has, but has built a base of suppliers who do hold them. This is going to be essential because nothing like Faradair's BEHA (Bio Electric Hybrid Aircraft) concept—a clean-sheet design for an 18-seat regional airliner based around a triple box wing—is being built anywhere, so Faradair is going to have to build it themselves.
"I started this journey to set up a British aircraft manufacturing company," Cloughley says. "I wanted to create British jobs. I wanted to put our flag back on the map, because we were satisfied with a percentage of programs. We're better than that. We are well within our rights to say we have earned our battle spurs to have aircraft production again, to start punching our weight out in the market again."
Others are less convinced. "I think the important thing is that we get to sustainable flight," says John Pritchard, president of GKN's UK-based civil airframe business. "I absolutely believe that the UK can play a significant role in that, but the importance that it's all done in the UK, when you look at how aircraft are produced today globally, I think that would be one heck of a challenge."
In other sectors, Hutton points out, the UK has taken steps to insulate the post-Brexit nation from issues with global supply chains. In 2017, the government announced funding support for a center to develop batteries for electric cars, eliminating reliance on a critical component not manufactured in-country. Something similar may be necessary for green aviation.
Green aerospace technologies are still in development: the corporate mechanisms required to deliver them commercially are yet to be determined. Faradair has based itself at Duxford, where the landlords—the Imperial War Museum, and Cambridge University's Gonville & Caius College—are in the process of establishing an aerospace technology business hub, aiming to attract a range of startups and small aerospace businesses. Perhaps a new UK OEM would not be a top-down, state-created single entity like Airbus, but a self-created, bottom-up collaboration between similarly inclined and aligned SMEs.
"If any country should be confident it can build whole aircraft, it should be the UK," says Hutton. "For some reason we've lost the confidence that we can do it. But now we've got a window of opportunity to reintroduce whole commercial aircraft manufacture in the UK in a space that is actually not that worrying to customers for our supply chain business.”
"Every industry that's been disrupted in the last three or four decades has thought they weren't going to be the one that was going to be disrupted next," he adds, "and that's exactly what's happening here. And I don't think people get it.
“We've got so comfortable just putting our money into technologies. Whenever you challenge the UK to put funding into the whole aircraft side, you just get that slight, 'Well, we're never going to do that,’” he says.
“I think, really? Is that something that was true five years ago because the only way to enter the market in a commercially viable space was in single-aisle or twin-aisle where there's far too much competition—or have people not realized the world has changed?"