British Airways is to explore the possibilities of moving from fossil fuels to zero-emission hydrogen to power its future fleet.

The airline has agreed to collaborate in a project to explore how hydrogen-powered aircraft can play a leading role in the future of sustainable flying.

Zero-emissions aviation firm ZeroAvia will work with BA to speed up the switch from traditional jet fuel.

The sustainability innovator is initially targeting 500-mile range in 10-20 seat aircraft used for commercial passenger transport, package delivery and agriculture.

ZeroAvia achieved a major technological breakthrough in September by completing the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a commercial-size aircraft.

The Piper M-class six-seat plane completed taxi, take-off, a full flight circuit and landing at Cranfield airfield in Bedfordshire.

ZeroAvia expects to further demonstrate the credibility of its technology at longer ranges and using larger aircraft in 2021.

The company expects to achieve the commercialisation of hydrogen-electric power for aircraft as early as 2023 with flights of up to 500-miles in up to 20-seater aircraft.

It plans to have powerplants in service by 2027 capable of powering commercial flights of more than 500 miles in aircraft with up to 100 seats and by 2030 more than 1,000 miles in aircraft with 100-plus seats.

The partnership forms part of BA owner IAG’s Hangar 51 accelerator programme, which works with start-ups to develop and test their products on real world business challenges on a global scale.

At the end of the programme, research and learnings from the process will be shared and the ZeroAvia and Hangar 51 teams will consider how the partnership will progress longer term.

The move comes in the week the airline retired its final Boeing 747 jumbo jets, four years earlier than planned to make way for more fuel-efficient types.

BA chief executive Sean Doyle said: “British Airways is committed to a sustainable future and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“In the short-term this means improving our operational efficiency and introducing carbon offset and removal projects, while in the medium to longer term we’re investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuel and looking at how we can help accelerate the growth of new technologies such as zero emissions hydrogen-powered aircraft.”

External communications and sustainability director Louise Evans added: “We are very excited to partner with ZeroAvia and get a glimpse of a zero-emissions future using hydrogen powered aircraft.

“During the partnership, as well as assessing the environmental advantages of the technology, we will also be exploring the operational, commercial and customer experience improvements that can be achieved.”

Sergey Kiselev, ZeroAvia head of Europe, said: “Earlier this year, we proved that passengers will soon be able to board an emissions free, hydrogen-powered aircraft for commercial services. In the years to come, we will scale that technology up to power larger aircraft over longer distances.

“We have found that in addition to improving the sustainability of flight, which is vital, hydrogen-electric technology has the potential to lower operating costs and improve the in-flight passenger experience.

BA and ZeroAvia are part of the Jet Zero Council, a partnership between government and industry to drive forward the government’s net zero-emission ambitions for the aviation and aerospace sector.