Airlines Throw Perks Overboard to Pave Way for Electric Plane

Costs and green commitments pave the way for an electric flight market

By Brendan Pringle

October 4, 2019

As high operating costs cut into already-tight margins, and strict carbon emissions standards hover in the distance, the race is on in the aviation industry to go electric.

Fuel can represent up to half the cost of running an airline, which is why major airlines have attempted to reduce fuel by even the most hair-splitting methods.

United Airlines started printing its in-flight magazine on lighter paper to cut 13 pounds from each flight, saving $290,000 a year. Add this to redesigned bathrooms, lighter seats, the elimination of duty-free product sales and other changes, and the operational cost savings totaled more than $2 billion for the airline.

United is not alone. Southwest switched glass bottles for lighter cans. Virgin Atlantic made its glassware thinner and swapped out some of its heavy slate plates. Back in 2008, Northwest Airlines sliced its limes into 16 slices instead of ten. In 2009, the Japanese airline All Nippon Airways even went so far as to ask passengers to relieve themselves before boarding.

Needless to say, airlines have gotten creative, but these small hacks can only do so much to cut costs, and environmentalists have placed immense pressure on the aviation industry, which represents 2-3 percent of worldwide emissions.

Haldane Dodd, Head of Communications for the Air Transport Action Group, a not-for-profit that promotes the sustainable growth of the industry, said that around 200,000 passenger flights have already started using sustainable fuels and that the industry is “at the beginning of an energy transition away from fossil fuels.”

“The whole aviation industry recognizes the need for collaborative action and a decade ago set itself some of the world’s first whole-of-sector goals, including one to reduce net CO2 emissions from the industry by half by 2050,” said Dodd.

Hence the rise of electric and hybrid airplanes.

Electric plane startup Ampaire has recently emerged as a leader in this new frontier, introducing the world’s largest electrified aircraft earlier this year, and accelerating the development of larger aircrafts by modifying existing planes with electric propulsion systems. Certification of their first 5 passenger aircraft is expected by the end of 2021.

“Recent advances in electric aviation have been enabled by component development and maturation in the ground electric vehicle space,” said Ampaire product manager Brice Nzeukou. “The major powertrain components, electric motors, inverters, and especially batteries are now sufficiently energy dense and efficient to enable electrified flight.”

Still, the electrification of aircrafts has faced logistical challenges revolving around regulation, technology, and infrastructure.

“We anticipate in the next five to ten years there will be regulatory changes and better technical performance that will allow the shortest commercial routes to start switching to hybrid or electric regional aircraft,” said Nzeukou. “Infrastructure development for electric aircraft at airports and in urban areas also continues to be a challenge.”

Likewise, experts say weight factors and the stability of systems at high altitudes remains a major hurdle to the development of larger electric aircrafts.

Dodd believes the evolution to electric will be a steady progression from air taxi type vehicles, to small commuter jets serving around nine passengers, to short-haul regional jets by 2030-2035, but acknowledged that long-haul electric aircrafts could be as far away as 2040. Others estimate that any breakthrough will take 30 to 40 years and that hybrid options will take center stage in the meantime.

While long-haul electric aircrafts may be a distant reality, industry leaders see the electrification of smaller planes as a major opportunity. Magnix, an Australian electric motor manufacturer, believes now is the best time to start introducing electric aviation.

“Smaller all-electric aircraft will operate at costs 60 to 80 percent lower per hour compared to the current fossil fuel based engines, which in turn means lower cost tickets, and new routes from tens of thousands of airports previously never used,” said Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX. “More people will be able to fly and more goods shipped on-demand now with smaller aircraft and significantly lower operating costs, and the on-demand model for aviation will now make business sense.”

In the short-term, electric planes will follow routes that are not economically feasible with fuel-powered planes. This means that the number of airports that could support commercial flights could grow from 500 to 5000, expanding options for everyone.

This year, the magniX unveiled the magni250, a 375-horsepower all-electric motor intended for small aircraft or as part of a distributed propulsion system on a larger plane; and the magni500, a 750-horsepower all-electric motor well-suited to ‘Middle-Mile’ aircraft traveling distances of 1,000 miles or less.

Dodd estimates that up to 100 electric specific research projects, led by large aerospace corporations and small start-ups alike, are currently underway to match the technological advancements of the auto industry in the sky.

“As with most races to build new technology, there will be those who succeed and those who provide lessons to the rest of the industry,” said Dodd. “But it is encouraging to see how much activity is underway.”