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

United Airlines, the country’s No. 3 carrier, has a contract to purchase 30-seat electric planes from Hart Aerospace, which Hart said it plans to introduce in 2028.

heart flight

One of the hardest things to know about reducing greenhouse gas emissions is what to do about flying, since most commercial aircraft are too heavy to fly on electric power with today’s technology. But United Airlines It is beginning to provide a picture of how electric aircraft will be part of their future and a key to reshaping the way travelers think about flying as an option for shorter-distance routes.

The country’s No. 3 airline has signed a contract to purchase 30-seat electric planes from Startup Heart Aerospace, which Heart said it plans to offer in 2028. In an evolution, United’s plan is not to replace larger planes, but to focus on new planes. on regional service. The airline is also preparing to offer eVTOL (Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) aircraft to do local transportation such as taking passengers from central cities to airports.

The idea is not to change the way flyers work but to persuade residents of small towns who now drive on trips of 250 miles or less to take a plane instead, Mike Liskinen, United’s vice president of corporate development and head of investment arm at United Ventures, told CNBC ESG Impact earlier. from this month. If successful, it would open up a new market for carriers like United, especially outside of major metropolitan areas.

“There are a lot of hurdles to clear but space development cycles measure decades and you have to start now,” Liskinen said. “We cannot continue to operate and operate our business the way we do. It is imperative that we change it and the way we are going to change it is by investing in technology.”

With electric cars and SUVs moving about 5% of the new car market in the United States and 9% globally, few airlines have made any major push toward electric planes. Your Sustainability Plans American AirlinesAnd the Delta Airlines And the Southwest Airlines It hardly mentions electric planes. Engineers cannot make an electric battery that is light and powerful enough to service an aircraft the size of today’s aircraft, said Elliot Lees, vice president and flight analyst at consultancy ICF in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

United’s plan is based on the idea that less than 1% of travelers who make a 250-mile journey choose to fly.

“It was different,” said Anders Forslund, chief executive of Gothenburg, Sweden-based, which has a contract to supply United with 100 30-seat electric planes. “Back in the ’90s, there were hundreds of small planes serving a lot of communities that are now out of service.”

United and Air Canada have also bought stakes in Heart Aerospace.

Why stop traveling by small plane in the city

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

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

Liskinen said passengers were unlikely to see any significant difference in the electric-powered interior of the aircraft. The ability to change planes in less than 30 minutes will mean the planes can be used for 10 or 11 hours a day, allowing for flexible schedules.

“What that means is that either a small town will get a service they didn’t have, and that they’ll have to drive to a [bigger] “Or they’d have more frequency to serve,” Liskinen said at a CNBC event. “This would allow a customer from that small town to take a flight in and out on the same day, whereas before that it wasn’t possible to ‘do this with conventional jet-powered aircraft’.”

The United Airlines CEO expects that these electric plans will be cheaper for the airline than conventional jet engines within a decade. “As we adopt electric aircraft, I think the cost of a 30-seater and 50-seat aircraft as the industry develops will be less expensive than conventional aircraft.”

Other airlines’ climate change plans

Most airlines’ pressure to cut emissions has focused on plans to reshape their existing fleet by replacing older aircraft with newer, more efficient models. In addition, airlines, including United, are focusing on investments in sustainable aviation fuel startups. The US Department of Energy says that sustainable airline fuel, or SAF, emits “significantly low”, but not zero, carbon levels, and says that some of the SAF technologies under development could result in net negative emissions of greenhouse gases.

Delta’s stated goal is to replace 10% of fuel with SAF by 2030. It has partnered with Airbus to study hydrogen-fueled aircraft but sees SAF as its primary medium-term means of reducing emissions with new technology. “We have a multi-pronged strategy for things we can do today, things we can do tomorrow like investing in SAF, investing in the future,” Fletcher said in an interview. “All of them must start now.”

America also points to reducing emissions by moving toward sustainable fuels, according to its annual Environmental, Social, and Governance Report. It plans to convert 10% of its fuel to safe refineries by 2030, as part of a plan to cut emissions by 45% by then and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

He said that even safe financial institutions do not really exist yet, due to a severe capacity crunch, the industry is scrambling to fix in time for 2030. The industry received an economic boost by passing President Biden’s climate legislation, which is seen as key to providing the necessary financial stimulus to scale up these new operations. Congress passed an inflation-reduction law in August with several provisions targeting aviation. One is a $1-gallon blender tax credit for biofuels designed to give incentives to build SAF plants faster, and long-term initiatives to accelerate technologies including hydrogen-powered aircraft and point source capture of carbon dioxide to create new green fuels, Liskinen said.

“We have a portfolio of sustainable aviation projects at United that is 177 deep, and we have been pens on a number of those projects because without this legislation, the hurdles were also just mere [high] to develop this technology. “There are dozens of otherwise unsuccessful companies that are now viable startups that you’ll hear about United Airlines and United Ventures investing in the coming months.”

Early versions of SAF technology would use fat to blend with conventional jet fuel, while Fletcher says newer versions will rely on carbon capture technology that will turn net emissions from some aircraft negative.

The 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 remaining 20% ​​will likely come from scheduling improvements and aircraft that get better fuel, Lees said.

The electric planes have already fallen back on stricter promises regarding when they may be government-certified and ready for service, and further delays are likely, Lees said. Most likely, electric aircraft will serve small markets, hydrogen-powered aircraft will serve medium-sized passenger payloads, and SAF-powered jet engines will serve major cities.

“Everyone is optimistic about these planes,” he said. “The [companies that make them] We are particularly optimistic about when.”

People have talked about

American, which declined to comment, has invested in London-based eVTOL vertical space. The company’s ESG report says the four-passenger eVTOLs it expects to deploy can transport passengers between cities at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. This alone could be a $12 billion market by 2030, said Chris Wright, airline analyst at research firm Third Bridge Group in New York, but regulatory hurdles and supply chain issues make predictions that the technology will become popular as early as 2024 unreliable. .

“Our experts are very optimistic, but less optimistic about the strict timeframes that are being marketed,” he said.

Just 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 invest 10 million dollars in Archer Aviation He ordered 100 Archer eVTOLs. But United believes the impact on aviation from this technology will be less, although it could allow a flight from a major metropolitan area to a small city within the region to be completely carbon-neutral.

“eVTOL will change the way we live and work,” Liskinen said. “It’s not about getting planes out of the sky, though. It’s taking cars out of the way. It’ll let us, if you live in Manhattan, get us out to the airport with the predictability of seven, seven and a half minutes to get out of Newark. Maybe if you’re traveling On a regional flight, you’d probably take a Heart ES-30 and your entire trip would be carbon-neutral.”

How practical this is depends on both technology development and regulatory agencies, as well as the rapid construction of places eVTOL can take off and land in cities, Wright said. The goal is to make eVTOL available for the cost of riding a premium Uber Black car service, but this may require the development and certification of an eVTOL unmanned vehicle.

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