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United is raising eyebrows with its drive to cut carbon emissions. The carrier has committed to the as yet untested realm of electric helicopter-like aircraft with plans to introduce as many as 200 of them within five years — a surprisingly ambitious goal for a traditionally conservative airline.

You’re in a rush, your flight leaves soon and you need to get from Wall Street to the airport. You could hail a cab but with traffic you might make your flight — tomorrow. Instead, you head over the heliport and hop on a short flight over traffic.

No, this is not the 1970s when New York Airways helicopters offered frequent flights between Wall Street and New York’s airports for hurried bankers. This is a glimpse at United Airlines’ new plans for the urban mobility market offering so-called “last mile” rides between its hub airports and urban destinations with new, low-emission electric vertical takeoff and landing — or eVTOL — aircraft.

On Wednesday, United unveiled a partnership with Palo Alto, California-based air mobility company Archer to develop an eVTOL for these last mile missions. The proposed aircraft, which Archer plans to unveil later this year, would carry four passengers up to 60 miles at speeds up to 150 miles per hour — speeding travelers past back ups in the Holland Tunnel or over the Sepulveda Pass to major airports. United and its regional affiliate Mesa Airlines have committed to purchasing up to 200 of these electric planes in a deal valued at $1 billion with the aim to debut them by 2024.

The partnership includes an undisclosed investment in Archer by United.

“Now is the time to embrace cleaner, more efficient modes of transportation,” said Scott Kirby, CEO of United, in a statement. “With the right technology, we can curb the impact aircraft have on the planet.”

The eVTOL partnership with Archer is just the latest green initiative from United. In December, the airline unveiled plans to go “100 percent green” by 2050 with an investment in carbon sequestration technology. This followed previous investments in biofuels that, according to Kirby, face challenges finding scalable feedstock supplies.

And the investment in Archer’s eVTOL project could be a segway to the bigger dream of large battery-powered passenger aircraft. While an all-electric Airbus A320 is likely decades away, small electric planes like eVTOLs could be a proving ground for technology that could be scaled to larger aircraft.

Technology Questions

The idea of a battery-powered eVTOL services in urban areas raises many questions in aerospace circles. Traditional gas-powered helicopters have repeatedly proven uneconomical providing quick connections from city centers to airports. eVTOL’s would provide carbon emissions benefits over their internal combustion engine-powered alternatives, however, it is unclear whether the economics of a four-passenger electric plane makes sense for a major airline. For comparison, New York Airways helicopters seated up to 25 passengers.

United’s move will pit it against the likes of Blade, a luxury ride-sharing helicopter service in New York, and Joby Aviation who announced plans to acquire Uber Elevate in December. Not to mention direct competition with personal automobiles and regional transit authorities, the latter of which are investing billions of dollars in new airport connections.

Take Los Angeles for example, a market that United said will be among its first for the new Archer aircraft. The regional transportation authority, Metro, is building a new light rail line to Los Angeles International Airport, and the airport an automated people-mover to take passengers from the rail line to the terminals. The light rail is due to open by the end of the year, and the people mover into LAX in 2023.

United claims that the Archer eVTOLs would produce 47 percent fewer emissions than a personal vehicle driving from Hollywood to LAX. The airline did not provide a comparison to a traveler taking the bus or train to the airport.

On top of the economics of eVTOLs, there are questions around how they would operate in congested urban skies. Blade fliers from designated heliports in Manhattan and the New York region’s airports. Other than Los Angeles, few major urban areas around the U.S. have publicly-accessible heliports that could support such services, potentially requiring the need to invest in new ground facilities.

And then there is the question of technology. As yet, Vancouver-based seaplane operator Harbour Air is the only carrier to test a fully battery-powered passenger aircraft. The airline has partnered with MagniX to develop an electric propulsion system for its DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver props. Other airlines, notably Hyannis, Massachusetts-based Cape Air, have partnered with various planemakers on developing an all-new electric aircraft.

Most greensheet electric aircraft programs remain years away. For example, the head of research at Italy’s Tecnam Fabio Russo recently told The Air Current that its electric variant of the P2012 Traveller — the P-VOLT — could enter service “well before … 2035.”

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would have to approve and certify Archer’s eVTOL — including everything from its design to its engines and the flight control system — before it could enter service for United or any other operator.

“We believe the U.S. government should be encouraged by this move,” wrote Cowen analyst Helane Becker on United’s commitment to Archer in a report Wednesday. “We believe carbon emissions will be a major focus for airlines in the next two decades.”

Archer Debut

Archer piggybacked on the United announcement to unveil plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange through a merger with special purpose vehicle Atlas Crest Investment Corp. The combination is expected to generate as much as $1.1 billion in gross proceeds for the company.

The company plans to unveil its eVTOL using “existing technology and elegant design to facilitate regulatory approvals” later in 2021, Archer said Wednesday. In January, it partnered with automobile company Stellantis — created through the combo of Fiat Chrysler and Groupe PSA in January as well — to manufacture its air taxis.

“Through our all-electric aircraft, we are striving to curb carbon emissions, decrease traffic, and create the transportation networks of the future,” Archer co-founder and CEO Adam Goldstein said in a statement.

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Tags: carbon emissions, climate change, mesa airlines, sustainability, united airlines

Photo credit: United has partnered with air mobility company Archer on a new electric aircraft that could provide connections to hub airports by 2024. Courtesy of Archer / Archer

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