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KUOW: Retired Alaska Airlines turboprop to get new life as 'world's largest' hydrogen-powered plane

Tom Banse, KUOW

Alaska Airlines ceremonially handed over a surplus turboprop airliner on Monday to a company that aims to turn it into the largest hydrogen-powered plane yet to fly.

The event at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, attracted prominent politicians and a throng of students interested in aviation in a sign of the current buzz around hydrogen fuel as a means to decarbonize air travel.

Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci made a show of handing the keys of a retired Bombardier Q400 turboprop airliner to ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov.

"Val, you go crazy. Make this thing happen," Minicucci said to Miftakhov. "To have a front row seat at revolutionizing the way propulsion evolves is pretty cool."

Earlier this year, Alaska Airlines replaced the last of its Q400 turboprops with regional jets. The surplus twin-engine, 76-seaters are now for sale except for the one given a fresh paint job before its transfer to partner ZeroAvia.

"Years from now, you will look back and say this is the time when the transformation of real, large aircraft — real commercial aircraft — started," Miftakhov said when it was his turn to address the audience.

Speaking with reporters later, Miftakhov estimated it would take about five years for the large, propeller-driven airliner class to be ready to fly commercially with retrofitted zero-emission power. ZeroAvia is first targeting to sell hydrogen-electric propulsion systems for 10-20 seat aircraft, which it hopes to have government certified in about two years.

Alaska Airlines Senior VP for Sustainability Diana Birkett Rakow hesitated to predict whether her carrier's regional unit, Horizon Air, would revert to propeller aircraft after just having made a transition to an all-jet fleet.

"We are using this as a perfect size to demonstrate this technology and move this technology toward certification," Birkett Rakow said in the shadow of the future hydrogen plane. "The idea is let's prove that we can do this at a larger scale for regional aircraft, for regional fleets across the world hopefully, and then continue to expand from there."

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