Harbour Air may not be a household name, but this is a promising development. It flies small planes on short routes and could be an early beneficiary of new battery technology. But remember, regulators have to certify it first.
Some big airlines, such as JetBlue Airways and EasyJet, have suggested electric aircraft may be the future of short-haul aviation. But most carriers are taking a patient approach, noting that battery technology, while promising, is not yet ready for widepsread commercial service.
But a unique Canadian airline said Tuesday it wants to give battery-powered aircraft a try, announcing an agreement with MagniX, a Redmond, Washington-based company developing new propulsion technology. The carrier is Vancouver’s Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane airline, transporting about 500,000 passengers per year, usually on routes shorter than one hour.
Harbour Air is betting it could be the first commercial airline to fly passengers on an all-electric airplane, its CEO, Greg McDougall, said in an interview. Later this year, it plans to convert a six-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver, adding MagniX’s magni500, a 750 horsepower, all-electric motor, capable of flying as long as 30 minutes.
While this seaplane could fly by November, Harbour Air and MagniX expect to spend the next one to three years persuading regulators from the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada to certify the technology for passengers.
The FAA has suggested it plans to devise standards for smaller electric aircraft, but Transport Canada is a bit behind, McDougall said. Still he added, “in our discussions with them, they don’t want to be left out of this game.” (A Transport Canada representative was not immediately available to comment.)
Eventually, McDougall said he’s hopeful electric airplanes can quietly fly over Vancouver harbor to nearby Victoria, or even downtown Seattle, a journey that today takes a little less than an hour.
“We are very confident that the regulatory process will allow it and don’t forget we have to prove equal or better than the safety we have now with single engine piston aircraft,” McDougall said. “Most of the existing technology is capable of doing what we need to do safely.”
Many of the biggest players in aviation, like JetBlue and EasyJet, are looking at new electric or hybrid-electric aircraft that could take years to develop, and depend on advances in technology to make viable on a big scale.
EasyJet has said it hopes to carry paying customers by 2027 through its partnership with U.S. company Wright Electric. It’ll take that long because battery technology isn’t yet developed enough for EasyJet to fly 180 passengers on routes of up to 300 miles. In the short term, Wright Electric has said it plans to test its technology on nine-seat airplanes.
The scale at Harbour Air is a lot smaller. Its flights are short, and none of its existing airplanes carry more than only 18 passengers, so the chasm between today’s technology and what the airline needs to fly passengers is much smaller.
“The type of operation that we have running single-engine airplanes on shorter stage lengths allows us to do things that other people can’t do with existing technology,” McDougall said.
Harbour has another advantage, because it does not need all-new aircraft. Instead, if this one-aircraft test is successful and regulators approve it, the airline likely would retrofit its existing fleet with MagniX’s electric motors, McDougall said.
Still Some Hiccups
Harbour Air may be closer than EasyJet or JetBlue, but even if regulators approved MagniX’s technology tomorrow, the small seaplane-operating airline couldn’t use it.
While current battery technology could allow Harbour Air to fly 30 minutes — enough for some routes — the airline could not fly a full passenger load with MagniX’s existing platform, McDougall said. “In terms of economic viability, the battery weight needs to come down and that will happen,” he said.
Roei Ganzarski, CEO of MagniX, said in an interview he is not worried about commercial viability for Harbour Air. Battery technology improves every year, he said, and by the time regulators certify the aircraft, the airplane will have enough range to fly profitably in Harbour’s network.
Already, he said, MagniX is close.
“If you look at today’s battery advancement, by 2022 that problem should be solved for the likes of Harbour Air,” Ganzarski said. “We won’t get 1,000 mile range, but for converted aircraft, we will get up to an hour, with full payload.”
This is (Probably) the Future
Passengers may always fly on traditional airplanes for long, prominent routes like New York to London and New York to Los Angeles.
But there’s increasing belief that electric airplanes could be the future for sub-500 mile routes with less passenger demand.
In a report published last month, Skift Senior Research Analyst Seth Borko noted that 20 percent of all U.S. domestic flights are fewer than 350 miles, with some ripe for disruption. And while most airlines aren’t ready to commit, some may be getting closer as technology improves. (Last year, U.S. public charter operator JetSuite said it planned to add new hybrid-electric aircraft from Zunum Aero as soon as 2022.)
“Battery range and weight remain the two limiting constraints, but each is slowly being addressed,” Borko wrote.
While the upfront costs of switching to electric power would be significant, Borko said airlines would also see significant savings on jet fuel. Not only is electricity cheaper than jet fuel, he noted, but pricing is less volatile, so airlines would have a better idea of future costs.
“Electric aircraft would bring massive changes to short-haul aviation, changing not just the routes and number of passengers that can be flown, but upending airline cost structures,” Borko said in the report.
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Photo credit: MagniX will put a new electric motor on one of Harbour Air's existing DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver aircraft. Harbour Air