Electric Airplanes

Illustration by Eviation

The era of electric airplanes is closer than you may think. The initial focus of this nascent market is for short flights. For example, European EasyJet is working with American start-up Wright Electric to build electric planes for regular services flying distances of less than 300 miles. Coast to coast flights on electric airplanes is years away but getting started in regional markets is important.

The global airline industry spent $180 billion on fossil fuel last year. For 2019, the fuel bill is forecast to rise to $206 billion. With the recent volatility in oil prices, the bill may go higher. At current levels, fuel accounts for 25% of airlines’ operating expenses.

Reducing the cost of flight is desirable, but even more important is electric planes would have zero emissions. The aviation industry produces around 2% of all human induced carbon dioxide emissions. Ancillary benefits of electric airplanes will be less vibration and lower noise.

Cape Air is based in Barnstable, Massachusetts. The employee-owned company made it’s first flight of about 50 miles between Boston and Provincetown in 1989. Now, Cape Air operates a fleet of 88 Cessna 402s and 4 Britten-Norman Islanders, and makes up to 400 flights per day during high season. Cape Air offers service across southern New England to Hyannis, Nantucket, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Providence, RI. They also fly between South Florida and the Keys and between Guam, Rota and Saipan.

Last year, Cape Air carried over 500,000 passengers, making it one of the largest regional airlines in the United States. The 9-passenger Cessna 402 aircraft flies at 240 miles per hour to some of the most beautiful destinations in the world. The routes Cape Air flies is a perfect fit for electric airplanes.

In June of this year, Cape Air announced it had placed its first order for an all-electric passenger airplane called The Alice. The three-engine battery powered airplane is designed to fly 650 miles on a single charge. The Alice was developed by an Israel-based startup company called Eviation Aircraft Ltd. The aircraft has not yet been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The company says the plane is ready for certification, and delivery to Cape Air is slated for 2022. The Eviation CEO predicts in a few years it may not be able to keep up with orders. He said, “We’ll have a supply issue, not a demand issue.”

The Alice will be powered by a 900 kilowatt-hour (kWH) lithium ion battery manufactured in South Korea. For comparison, my Tesla Model S has a 100 kWH battery. As a pilot with experience waiting for FAA certification of a new airplane (not electric), I suspect the 2022 target may turn out to be optimistic. However, the concept is a great one, and the plane sounds perfect for a regional airline like Cape Air. Meanwhile, on the ground, development and delivery of electric cars, trucks, and buses is continuing at a rapid clip.