United Airlines, the nation’s No. 3 carrier, has a contract to buy 30-seat electric planes from startup Heart Aerospace, which Heart said it plans to introduce in 2028.
One of the hardest things to figure out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been what to do with aviation, since most commercial airplanes are too heavy to fly on electric power with current technology. But United Airlines begins to offer a picture of how electric aircraft will be part of their future and a key to reshaping the way travelers consider aviation as an option for shorter-haul routes.
The nation’s No. 3 carrier has a contract to buy 30-seat electric jets from startup Heart Aerospace, which Heart said it plans to introduce in 2028. In a twist, United’s plan isn’t to replace big planes, but to focus on new planes. in the regional service. The airline is also preparing to introduce eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) for local transport, such as taking passengers from central cities to airports.
The idea is less to change fliers’ behavior than to convince small-town residents who now drive on trips of 250 miles or less to take a plane, said Mike Leskinen, United’s vice president of corporate development and president of its investment arm United Ventures . he said on CNBC ESG Impact earlier this month. If it works, it opens up a new market for carriers like United, especially outside of major metro areas.
“There are absolutely many hurdles to clear, but aerospace development cycles are measured in decades and we need to start now,” Leskinen said. “We cannot continue doing and operating our business as we do. It is imperative that we change it and the way we are going to change it is by investing in technology.”
As electric cars and SUVs move towards 5% of the new car market in the US and 9% globally, few airlines have made a major push into electric aircraft. Sustainability plans that are being carried out American Airlines, Delta Air Lines e Southwest Airlines barely mentions electric planes. Engineers can’t make an electric battery light and powerful enough to power an airplane the size of today’s planes, 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 on a 250-mile trip choose to fly.
“It used to be different,” said Anders Forslund, CEO of Gothenburg, Sweden-based Heart Aerospace, which has a contract to supply United with 100 30-seat electric planes. “Going back to the 1990s, there were hundreds of small planes serving many communities that have now gone out of service.”
United and Air Canada also bought stakes in Heart Aerospace.
Why did city air travel stop?
People in smaller towns stopped flying because jet engines made for airplanes were too expensive to serve those communities profitably, Forslund said.
“It’s a remarkable technology, but now it’s slowing down,” he said. “When you bring in an electric motor … you can get a lot of synergies with what’s going on in the auto industry. They can start building small airplanes that have a completely different unit economy.”
Travelers are unlikely to see major differences inside an electric plane, Leskinen said. And the ability to change planes in as little as 30 minutes will mean planes can be in use 10 or 11 hours a day, allowing for flexible schedules.
“That means a small town is going to get a service that it didn’t have, that it had to drive to [bigger] airport, or they will have higher frequency of service,” Leskinen said at the CNBC event. reaction”.
And the United Airlines executive predicts that these electric plans will be cheaper for the airline than traditional jet engines within a decade. “As we adopt electric aircraft, I think the cost of a 30-seat aircraft, a 50-seat aircraft as the industry evolves is going to be less than a traditional aircraft.”
Other airline climate change plans
Most airlines’ drive to reduce emissions has centered on plans to overhaul their existing fleets by replacing older planes with new, more efficient models. In addition, airlines, including United, are focused on investments in sustainable aviation fuel startups. The U.S. Department of Energy says sustainable airline fuels, or SAF, emit “dramatically lower” carbon levels, but not zero, and says some developing SAF technologies could lead to net negative greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse
Delta’s announced goal is to replace 10% of its fuel with SAF by 2030. It has partnered with Airbus to study hydrogen-powered aircraft, but sees SAF as its main medium-term means of reducing emissions with new technologies. “We have a multiple 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. “They all have to start now.”
American also aims to reduce emissions through sustainable fuels, according to its annual report on environmental, social and governance management. It plans to switch 10% of its fuel to SAF by 2030, as part of a plan to cut emissions by 45% by then and reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Even SAFs aren’t really there yet, due to a severe capacity crisis that the industry is struggling to fix in time for 2030, he said. The industry received an economic boost with the passage of President Biden’s climate legislation, which is seen as key to providing the financial incentives needed to scale these new operations. The Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed several provisions targeting aviation in August. One is a $1-per-gallon biofuels tax credit designed to provide incentives to build SAF plants faster, and long-term initiatives to accelerate technologies including hydrogen-powered aircraft and point-source carbon capture to create new green fuels. Leskinen said.
“We have a portfolio of sustainable aviation projects at United that has 177 companies, and we have penciled in a number of them because without this legislation the hurdles were too high. [high] to develop this technology,” he said. “There are literally dozens of companies that wouldn’t work that are now viable startups that you’ll hear about from United Airlines and United Ventures investment in the coming months.”
Early versions of the SAF technology will use lipids to blend 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 projects that 70% of airline emissions cuts by 2050 will come from switching to SAFs, while only 10% will come from the adoption of electric (or hydrogen-powered) aircraft. The other 20% will likely come from schedule improvements and planes that get better fuel mileage, Lees said.
Electric planes have already eluded more aggressive promises for when they could be approved by the government and ready for service, and more delays are likely, Lees said. Electric planes will likely serve small markets, hydrogen-powered planes will serve medium-sized passenger loads, and SAF-powered jets will serve major cities.
“Everybody is optimistic about these planes,” Lees said. “O [companies that make them] are particularly optimistic about when.”
American, which declined to comment, has invested in the London-based eVTOL company Vertical aerospace. The company’s ESG report says the four-passenger eVTOLs it hopes to deploy can carry passengers between cities at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. That alone could be a $12 billion market by 2030, said Chris Raite, an airline analyst at research firm Third Bridge Group in New York, but regulatory hurdles and supply chain issues mean predictions that the technology will become common as early as 2024 are not reliable.
“Our experts are very optimistic, but less optimistic about 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 an investment of 10 million dollars Archer Aviation and order 100 eVTOL from Archer. But United thinks the impact on flying of that technology will be smaller, although it could allow a trip from a large metropolitan area to a small town in the region to be completely carbon-free.
“eVTOL is going to change the way we live and work,” said Leskinen. “However, it’s not taking airplanes out of the sky. It’s taking cars off the road. It’s going to allow us, if you live in Manhattan, to get to the airport with a predictability of seven, seven and a half minutes to get out. Newark. Maybe if you’re flying on a flight regional, maybe you get on a Heart ES-30 plane and your entire trip is carbon-free.”
How practical that is depends on both technological development and regulators, as well as the rapid construction of places for eVTOLs to take off and land in cities, Raite said. The goal is to make eVTOL available for the cost of an Uber Black premium car ride, but that may require the development and approval of a pilotless eVTOL.