According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2019-2023 National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems, approximately 5,090 airports in the U.S. are capable of providing commercial airline service, but only 506 of them actually do so.
The reason is simple: major airlines make money by moving large numbers of passengers in a single plane over a long distance. Higher fuel burn rates, higher maintenance costs, lower passenger volume plus landing fees and crew costs make it difficult for air carriers to operate 150- to 200-passenger jets profitably between regional airports.
Smaller (six- to 19-passenger) electric airplanes, however, could potentially rewrite this airline calculus and revitalize regional air travel for consumers and air carriers alike.
Lower Costs, Higher Comfort
“We expect savings of 25 to 30 percent in fuel cost with hybrid-electric airplanes, and perhaps 65 to 80 percent savings with fully electric models,” said Stan Little, chairman and CEO of Southern Airways Express, a regional air carrier that primarily operates nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft. “Electric motors will undoubtedly produce significant savings in maintenance costs, but it’s too early to know how much.”
Little hopes to be flying hybrid-electric caravans on Southern Airways’ routes within the next three to four years, and possibly fully electric models in the five-year plus time frame, he added. Hybrid-electric airplanes typically use an internal combustion engine operating in parallel with a battery-powered electric motor for propulsion. Fully electric models run exclusively on battery power.
Operational costs aside, Little is confident that electric airplanes will offer consumers a transformative flying experience.
“The number one benefit of electric aircraft for consumers will be the quietness of the cabin,” he said. “They will also get the satisfaction of knowing that the carbon footprint they’re leaving behind is extremely low.”
Southern Airways Express subsidiary Mokulele Airlines is currently working with Los Angeles aviation startup Ampaire to flight test a six-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster retrofitted with the Ampaire’s parallel hybrid-electric propulsion system. Mokulele and Ampaire plan to flight test the aircraft in 2020 by tracing a 15-minute commercial flight route between Kahului Airport and Hana Airport on the island of Maui.
Short Hop to the Future
Greg McDougall, founder and CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Harbour Air Seaplanes, is also bullish on the ability of electric airplanes to bolster regional air travel in British Columbia.
Over the last year, his company has been working closely with Redmond, Washington-based magniX, an electric motor producer, to retrofit and obtain FAA certification for a six-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver seaplane with an all-electric propulsion system. The two companies conducted the first all-electric flight of the aircraft in December 2019. McDougall hopes to eventually electrify Harbour Air’s entire fleet of seaplanes with magniX’s electric propulsion technology.
As McDougall sees it, these retrofitted electric seaplanes, with their expected range of 100 to 150 miles, would be a great fit for both the current and future needs of his airline.
“Anywhere there’s water in a metropolitan area in British Columbia, we’re flying into it with multiple scheduled services per day,” he said. “Our most popular route, for example, between (British Columbia capital) Victoria and downtown Vancouver is just 35 minutes. It’s also one of our longest routes.”
Electric airplanes also have the potential to enhance the basic operating model of Harbour Air, offered McDougall. “Electric motors will be much cheaper to maintain, and it will be many times cheaper to charge a seaplane’s batteries than to put fuel in it.” These cost savings, he added, will help reduce Harbour Air’s overhead, which will likely make seaplane travel more accessible and more affordable for more people.
The long pole in the electric aviation tent, McDougall admitted, remains aircraft certification. He expects the FAA certification process of the Harbour Air/magniX de Havilland Beaver to take in the “neighborhood of two years.”
Less urgent but still critical to meeting the weight, payload and performance challenges of electric aircraft is battery energy density, i.e. energy per unit volume. Lithium-ion batteries, currently the most mature battery technology for aviation, still have only about 1/70 the energy density of jet fuel. The more energy each battery can store, the fewer batteries an aircraft will need to carry to reach its desired operating range. Fewer batteries also mean lower aircraft weight, which will allow it to carry more freight or passengers instead.
McDougall is cautiously optimistic that advances in lithium-ion battery technology or possibly hydrogen cell technology could close that gap significantly in the coming years.
Not all regional air carriers are convinced that retrofitting conventional aircraft with electric or hybrid-electric propulsion systems is time and money well-spent.
Hyannis, Massachusetts-based Cape Air, whose service areas include New England, the Midwest and the Caribbean, is working closely with Israeli aircraft company Eviation, the developer of a new all-electric, nine-passenger commuter aircraft called Alice.
“So much of the design and engineering of new all-electric aircraft centers on the power plant and energy source, that I’m not convinced that retrofitting conventional planes is going to work from a commercial standpoint,” said Cape Air’s CEO Dan Wolf. “I think we’re actually going to see ‘clean sheet’ designs become the mainstay of the decarbonized fleet in a number of years.”
Cape Air has been operating a fleet of nine-passenger Cessna 402s since Wolf founded the airline in 1989. In October 2019, Cape Air began transitioning its fleet to the nine-passenger Tecnam P2012 Traveller. Wolf expects the airline to transition eventually to a fleet of fully electric aircraft, including, presumably, Alice.
“We believe that it will be possible, within our lifetimes, to significantly reduce or eliminate carbon from the short-haul transportation business,” he said.
No matter which type of electric aircraft ends up on the flight line, regional air carriers will need pilots who can fly their planes, and electric charging infrastructure at every airport (or harbor) where they land.
Much of the pilot training will either be provided by aircraft developers as part of purchase agreements with carriers, or new pilots will seek out their own certification on aircraft such as Bye Aerospace’s eFlyer 2 all-electric training aircraft.
How the charging infrastructure plays out and how it’s paid for is less clear. Typically, airports are powered from a central grid and users pay for the power, in effect, through landing fees and hangar rent. Another option for funding this infrastructure could be public-private partnerships between aircraft developers, federal agencies and municipal airports.
Since time (on the ground) is money, however, new aircraft charging infrastructure will likely center on fast-charging technology.
“We’re currently looking at one minute of charging time for every minute of flight time,” said Southern Airways Little. That equation could still be a challenge for his airline, whose average time between flights is just 25 minutes, he admits. “Electric charging could actually slow down our operation, or require additional aircraft, which eats away at the cost savings that come with going to an all-electric fleet.”
Charter Flying Reimagined
Electric airplanes also have the potential to dramatically reshape the world of charter flying, suggests Little.
“We’re going to start out by electrifying nine-seat Caravans as part of our regularly scheduled service,” he said. “People are then going to become comfortable flying on electric planes because they’re going to see Southern Airways conducting 60,000 electric flights a year that are all safe and all reliable. This will become an accepted part of human existence in America.”
The ubiquity of commuter electric air travel and its anticipated lower cost structure, added Little, could also lead to the electrification of smaller, four-seat aircraft that will be able to land on a regular basis at general aviation airports (i.e,. those not currently served by commercial airlines).
“You may even be able to call up an app on your phone and charter a four-seat electric aircraft the same way that you call an Uber today,” he continued. “I think this charter service will become available to the average American family, a giant leap from the two percent of families that can afford that service today.”
Scaling Up, Flying Forward
However it plays out, electric aviation promises to become more common, more accessible and a source of new opportunities for air travelers, regional air carriers, electric airplane producers and suppliers of critical airport infrastructure alike.
If it is to be successful, however, advised Cape Air’s Wolf, it must be scalable.
“As one of the largest commuter airlines in the country flying small airplanes the shortest distances, Cape Air has the opportunity to be a leader in helping launch a clean, carbon-free regional air transportation sector,” he said. “But our fleet of 95 airplanes can’t be the beginning and end of that story. I hope that our work will be the introduction to decarbonizing air transportation completely over time. The transition we have planned over the next few years will make the whole flying experience more satisfying for travelers and much healthier for the planet.”
If you’re ready to put your career on a runway to a greener, healthier future, check out the latest career opportunities.