How United Airlines expects electric planes to change the way passengers make travel decisions

How United Airlines expects electric planes to change the way passengers make travel decisions

United Airlines, the country’s third-largest airline, has a contract to buy 30-seat electric planes from start-up Heart Aerospace, which Heart said it plans to introduce in 2028.

Aerospace Heart

One of the hardest things to figure out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been what to do with aviation, since most commercial jets are too heavy to fly on electricity with the technology today. But United Airlines begins to provide a picture of how electric aircraft will be part of its future and a key to rethinking how travelers view aviation as a choice for shorter routes.

The country’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. In a twist, United’s plan is not to replace large jets, but to focus new aircraft on regional service. The airline is also preparing to introduce eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) craft to perform local transportation, such as ferrying passengers from central cities to airports.

The idea is less to change traveler behavior and more to convince people in small towns who now make trips of 250 miles or less to fly instead, said Mike Leskinen, vice president of business development. of United and chairman of its investment arm United Ventures, ESG Impact told CNBC earlier this month. If it works, it opens up a new market for carriers like United, especially outside of major metropolitan areas.

“There are absolutely a lot of hurdles to jump through, but aerospace development cycles are measured in decades and you have to start now,” Leskinen said. “We cannot continue to do and operate our business as we do. It is imperative that we change it and the way we are going to change it is through investing in technology.”

As electric cars and SUVs approach 5% of the new car market in the US and 9% globally, few airlines have made a major push towards electric planes. Sustainable development plans pursued by American airlines, Delta Airlines and South West Airlines barely mention electric planes. Engineers can’t make an electric battery light and powerful enough to power an aircraft the size of today’s jets, said Eliot Lees, vice president and aviation analyst at consulting firm ICF in Cambridge, in the Massachusetts.

The United plan is based on the idea that less than 1% of travelers on a 250-mile trip choose to fly.

“Before it was different,” said Anders Forslund, CEO of Heart Aerospace, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, which has a contract to supply United with 100 30-seat electric planes. “Go back to the 1990s, there were hundreds of small planes serving many communities that have now lost service.”

United and Air Canada also bought stakes in Heart Aerospace.

Why Small Urban Plane Travel Has Stopped

People in small towns stopped flying because jet engines made for airplanes were too expensive to service those communities profitably, Forslund said.

“It’s a remarkable technology but it’s holding us back now,” he said. “When you bring in an electric motor…you can get a lot of synergies with what’s going on in the automotive industry. They can start building small planes that have a completely different unit economics.”

Travelers are unlikely to see a major difference inside an electric-powered plane, Leskinen said. And the ability to change planes in as little as 30 minutes means planes can be used 10 or 11 hours a day, allowing for flexible schedules.

“What that means is that a small town is either going to get a service they didn’t have or have to drive to a [bigger] airport, or they’re going to have a higher frequency of service,” Leskinen said at the CNBC event. you couldn’t not do that with traditional jet aircraft.”

And the United Airlines executive predicts these electric planes 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, will be cheaper than a traditional aircraft.”

Other airline plans on climate change

Most airlines’ efforts to reduce emissions have focused on plans to revamp their existing fleet by replacing older planes with newer, more efficient models. Additionally, airlines, including United, are focusing on investing in sustainable aviation fuel startups. The U.S. Department of Energy says sustainable airline fuels, or SAFs, emit “significantly lower” but not zero levels of carbon, and says some SAF technologies under development could result in net-negative emissions of greenhouse gas.

Delta’s stated goal is to replace 10% of fuel with SAF by 2030. It has partnered with Airbus to study hydrogen aircraft, but sees SAF as its primary medium-term means of reducing emissions thanks to 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. “All must begin now.”

American also aims to reduce emissions by switching to sustainable fuels, according to its annual Environmental, Social and Governance Management Report. 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 achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Even SAF isn’t really there yet, due to a severe capacity crisis that the industry is scrambling to resolve in time for 2030, he said. The industry has received an economic boost from the passage of President Biden’s climate legislation, which is seen as key to providing the financial incentives needed to grow these new operations. Congress’ Inflation Reduction Act was passed in August with several provisions targeting aviation. One is a $1-a-gallon blender tax credit for biofuels designed to incentivize building SAF factories faster, and longer-term initiatives to accelerate technologies, including hydrogen-powered aircraft and point capture of carbon dioxide to create new green fuels, says Leskinen.

“We have a portfolio of sustainable aviation projects at United that has 177 companies, and we were penciling in a number of them because without this legislation the barriers were just too much. [high] to develop this technology,” he said. “There are literally dozens of companies that wouldn’t have worked that are now viable startups that you’ll hear about investments from United Airlines and United Ventures in the coming months.”

Early versions of SAF technology will use lipids to mix with conventional jet fuel, while Fletcher says later versions will rely on carbon capture technology that will actually make some planes’ emissions net negative.

ICF predicts that 70% of airline emissions reductions by 2050 will come from switching to SAF, while only 10% will come from adopting electric (or hydrogen) aircraft. The remaining 20% ​​will likely come from schedule improvements and planes that get better fuel economy, Lees said.

Electric planes have already slipped behind the most aggressive promises of when they could be government-approved and ready for service, and further delays are likely, Lees said. Most likely, electric planes will serve small markets, hydrogen planes will serve medium-sized passenger loads, and SAF-powered jet engines will serve large cities.

“Everyone is optimistic about these planes,” Lees said. “The [companies that make them] are particularly optimistic about the timing.”

People have been talking about

American, who declined to comment, has invested in London-based eVTOL Vertical aeronautics. The company’s ESG report says the four-passenger eVTOLs it plans to deploy can carry passengers between cities at up to 200 miles per hour. That alone may represent 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 predict that the technology will become mainstream as early as 2024 unreliable.

“Our experts are very optimistic, but less optimistic about aggressive timeframes being traded,” he said.

This month, Delta Air Lines invested in 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 eVTOL Archer. But United believes the impact on flight of this technology will be less, although it could allow travel from a major metropolitan area to a small town in the region to be entirely carbon-free.

“eVTOL will change the way we live and work,” Leskinen said. “It’s not about taking planes out of the sky, though. 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 Newark Maybe if you’re flying regional, maybe you get on a Heart ES-30 plane and your whole trip will have been carbon-free.

The feasibility of this depends on both technological development and regulators, as well as the rapid construction of places where eVTOL can take off and land in cities, Raite said. The goal is to make eVTOL available for around the cost of a premium Uber Black car service ride, but this may require the development and approval of an unmanned eVTOL device.

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