United Airlines, the country’s No. 3 airline, has a deal to purchase 30-seat electric aircraft from startup Heart Aerospace, which Heart says will launch in 2028.
One of the hardest things to figure out about reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been the issue of aviation, as most commercial aircraft are too heavy to be electrically powered with today’s technology. but United Airlines is beginning to paint a picture of how electric aircraft will be part of its future, and a key to changing the way travelers think about aviation as a choice for shorter routes.
The country’s No. 3 airline has a deal to purchase 30-seat electric aircraft from startup Heart Aerospace, which Heart says it plans to launch in 2028. In a twist, United doesn’t plan to replace large jets but to focus the new planes on regional service. The airline is also preparing to launch eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles for mass transit, e.g. B. to bring passengers from central cities to airports.
The idea isn’t so much to change the behavior of aviators as to convince small-town dwellers, who now drive for trips of 250 miles or less, to take a plane instead, according to Mike Leskinen, United’s vice president of corporate development and president of its investment arm of United Ventures, said at CNBC ESG Impact earlier this month. If it works, it will open up a new market for airlines like United, especially outside of the major metropolitan areas.
“There are absolutely a lot of hurdles to overcome, but aerospace development cycles are measured in decades and you have to start now,” Leskinen said. “We cannot continue and operate our business the way we do. It is imperative that we change it and we will change it by investing in technology.”
While electric cars and SUVs are moving toward 5% of the new car market in the US and 9% globally, few airlines have made a major effort toward electric planes. Sustainability plans are pursued by American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines hardly mention electric planes. Engineers can’t make an electric battery light enough and powerful enough to power an airplane the size of today’s jets, said Eliot Lees, vice president and aviation analyst at consulting firm ICF in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The United plan is based on the idea that less than 1% of travelers making a 250-mile trip choose to fly.
“It used to be different,” said Anders Forslund, CEO of Heart Aerospace, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, which has a contract to deliver 100 30-seat electric aircraft to United. “Go back to the 1990s, there were hundreds of small planes serving many communities that have now ceased service.”
United and Air Canada also have stakes in Heart Aerospace.
Why Travel on Small City Planes Has Been Discontinued
People in smaller towns stopped flying because jet engines made for airplanes were too expensive to profitably power those communities, Forslund said.
“It’s remarkable technology, but it’s holding us back now,” he said. “If you introduce an electric motor… you can get a lot of synergy with what’s happening in the automotive industry.
Travelers probably won’t notice much of a difference inside an electrically-powered plane, Leskinen said. And the ability to switch planes in just 30 minutes means planes can operate 10 or 11 hours a day, allowing for flexible schedules.
“That means a small town either gets a service they didn’t have or they had to drive to one [bigger] airport, or they’ll be served more frequently,” Leskinen said at the CNBC event. “That will allow the customer from this small town to get in and out of the country on the same day, whereas before you couldn’t. You can’t do that with traditional jet planes.”
And United Airlines’ board of directors predicts that within a decade these electric plans will be cheaper for the airline than traditional jet engines. “As we introduce electric aircraft, I think the cost of a 30-seat and 50-seat aircraft will be lower than a conventional aircraft as the industry develops.”
Other Airline Climate Action Plans
Efforts by most airlines to cut emissions have focused on plans to renew their existing fleets by replacing older aircraft with more efficient newer models. Additionally, airlines, including United, are focused on investing in sustainable aviation fuel startups. The US Department of Energy says sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, emit “dramatically lower” levels of carbon, but not zero, and that some SAF technologies under development could result in net negative greenhouse gas emissions.
Delta’s stated goal is to replace 10% of fuel with SAF by 2030. The company has partnered with Airbus to study hydrogen-powered aircraft, but sees SAF as its key medium-term means of reducing emissions with new technology. “We have a multi-pronged strategy of things we can do today, things we can do tomorrow, like investing in SAF and investing in the future,” Fletcher said in an interview. “Everyone must start now.”
According to its annual report on environmental, social and governance management, American also points to reducing emissions by switching to sustainable fuels. It plans to switch 10% of its fuel to SAFs by 2030, as part of a plan to reduce emissions by 45% by then and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Even SAFs aren’t really there yet as the industry scrambles to find a solution in time for 2030 due to a severe capacity shortage, he said. The industry has received an economic boost from the passage of President Biden’s climate legislation, which is believed to be key to providing the financial incentives needed to scale these new operations. The Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed in August with several provisions targeting aviation. One is a $1 per gallon blender tax credit for biofuels, incentives for faster construction of SAF plants, and longer-term initiatives to accelerate technologies like hydrogen-powered airplanes and spot carbon capture to create new green fuels should offer. said Leskinen.
“We have a portfolio pipeline at United of sustainable aviation projects that includes 177 companies and we had pencils on some of them because without this legislation the hurdles were just too high [high] to develop this technology,” he said. “There are literally dozens of companies that would not have worked that are now viable startups that you will be investing in over the coming months.”
Early versions of SAF technology will use lipids to mix it with conventional jet fuel, while Fletcher says later versions will rely on carbon capture technology that will actually make some planes’ net emissions negative.
ICF predicts that 70% of airline emissions reductions by 2050 will come from switching to SAFs, while only 10% will come from adopting electric (or hydrogen-powered) aircraft. The other 20% will likely come from planning improvements and better fuel-efficient aircraft, Lees said.
Electric planes have already slipped behind the most aggressive promises about when they could be government approved and operational, and further delays are likely, Lees said. Most likely, electric aircraft will serve small markets, hydrogen-powered aircraft will serve medium passenger numbers, and SAF-powered jet engines will serve large cities.
“Everyone is optimistic about these planes,” Lees said. “That [companies that make them] are particularly optimistic about when.”
American, which declined to comment, has invested in London-based eVTOL company Vertical Aerospace. The company’s ESG report says the four-passenger eVTOLs it expects to deploy will be able to transport passengers between cities at up to 200 miles per hour. This alone could be a $12 billion market by 2030, said Chris Raite, an airline analyst at New York-based research firm Third Bridge Group, but regulatory hurdles and supply chain issues make predictions that the technology will be commonplace as early as 2024 unreliable.
“Our experts are very bullish but less bullish on the aggressive timeframes that are being marketed,” he said.
Just this month, Delta Air Lines invested Joby aviation. United is also investing in eVTOL: most recently, a $15 million order with Eve Air Mobility in September, including an order for 200 aircraft; and a $10 million investment in Archer Aviation and order 100 Archer eVTOLs. But United believe the impact of this technology on flying will be smaller, although it could make a trip from a major metropolitan area to a small town in the region completely carbon-free.
“eVTOL will change the way we live and work,” said Leskinen. “It doesn’t take planes out of the sky, however. It takes cars off the road. It will allow us, if you live in Manhattan, to get to the airport with a predictability of seven, seven and a half minutes Newark. If you’re flying a regional flight, maybe hop on a Heart ES-30 plane and your entire trip was carbon-free.”
How practical that is depends on both technological development and regulators, as well as the rapid expansion of eVTOL takeoff and landing sites in cities, Raite said. The goal is to make eVTOL available for roughly the cost of a premium Uber Black car ride, but that may require the development and approval of eVTOL driverless vehicles.