Regional air mobility: Back to the future?

Deep Dive

Passengers board Trislanders at Guernsey Airport back in 2012. (source: The Island Wiki)

Turning up to my local airport as a child in the late ‘90s there would be a familiar sight on the apron. A fleet of Britten-Norman Trislander aircraft readying to fly you to runways less landed. This was the reality in Guernsey, the pride of the Channel Islands between England and France, for much of my childhood. Now the last Trislander hangs from the ceiling of a children’s play centre, viewed by youngsters below as little more than a relic of how we used to fly.

Guernsey’s flag carrier was the first and largest commercial Trislander operator. At its height it had 16 aircraft, with destinations including Exeter, Southampton and Newquay in the UK and Dinard and Cherbourg in France.

But by May 2017, on trend with the demise of regional aviation globally, Aurigny opted to withdraw all its Trislanders, replacing them with newer Dornier 228s. Four years later, the airline sold one of its three 228s to hydrogen propulsion start-up ZeroAvia in an effort to “simplify” the fleet. Today, Aurigny operates six aircraft: two Dornier 228s, three ATR 72s (72 passengers) and an Embraer 195 (122 passengers) to less than half of the destinations it used to offer at more expensive price points than ever before.

If ever there was a case for regional air mobility, here it is.

Building the case at Heart

“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were hundreds of 19-seater through to 30-seater aeroplanes, flying all over the place,” Claudio Camelier, head of Marketing at Heart Aerospace tells us. “As decades went by the regional aviation space has gone through a huge transformation from those smaller, turboprop aeroplanes, first moving into 50-seat regional jets and then moving to larger and larger aeroplanes, which still continues. Even in the US market today, 50-seat regional jets are being phased out and the current standard for regional aviation in North America is the 76-seater.”

The reason for this shift is unit economics. Smaller aircraft have fewer seats and thus passenger costs go up. These aircraft also generally fly shorter sectors, which is not good for conventional engines and again drives up costs.

“So you end up in a harsh operating environment for smaller aircraft, which makes you say: ‘Right, let’s get a bigger plane’. That will definitely drive unit costs down, but the problem is now you can’t serve those smaller markets with a lower passenger demand and make a profit,” says Camelier.

Heart Aerospace, which is developing a hybrid-electric 30-seat regional aircraft it calls ES-30, was formed on the thesis that if it can deliver a regional aircraft that has very attractive economics. But is also equally attractive in terms of environmental impact. This would allow trigger a re-expansion in regional operations. “We don’t see our aircraft simply as a tool that will replace existing, older regional aircraft. Yes, it’s part of the story, but the growth potential is much more important. We truly believe that if we are able to offer airlines a product that has attractive economics and very low emissions, this will allow them to grow the regional space that has been shrinking over the past decades.” 

Research published last year by Porsche Consulting in Germany found advancements in areas such as battery-electric powered motors and AI-based flight planning could reverse the regional aviation trend. It noted 140 airfields in Germany meet the required 900m runway length for thin-haul, battery-electric aircraft take-off and landing. On top of that, 45% of the German population lives within 20km (12 miles) of these airfields.

View from McKinsey

The same goes for the US. A white paper from McKinsey published last year cited a statistic that 90% of the American population lives within a 30-minute drive of a regional airport, with only 60% in the same proximity to a commercial airport. Globally, about 36,000 regional airports, suitable for smaller aircraft, can provide coverage for less travelled routes if operators can make it make sense.

The biggest challenge standing in the way of a renaissance in regional air mobility comes in defining the customer experience, according to Robin Riedel, co-lead at the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility. “You have to think about the hassle factor. If you ask somebody: ‘Hey, do you want to fly for 30 minutes or drive for three hours?’ They’re always going to say fly for 30 minutes. But if you start telling them you’re going have to use a different transport mode and organise that independently for the first mile and last mile. That it will also be more expensive because of this and you have to be on scheduled. All of a sudden it appears it is probably not worth flying.”

There needs to be an operator that unlocks this and figures out how to make the process easy, says Riedel. “For example, it drives me nuts when people talk about check-in. There is no good reason for it in traditional aviation anymore, and we should definitely not have it in regional air mobility either. We need to stop doing some of this traditional stuff that creates hassle factor and really focus on an experience that’s seamless and smooth.”

Take ride-hailing as an example, it took a while until Uber worked out that the two big pain points are hailing a cab and paying for it at the end. “Who’s going to figure this out in regional mobility? I’m not sure,” says Riedel.

“Even with 50% reductions in direct operating costs, it is not going to be the aircraft alone that makes the difference. It still makes aviation quite expensive. You need to streamline to make the process easy to fly. If I have to turn up at the airport an hour before to go through TSA and I don’t have an easy way to get to the airport or from it when I land, the benefits of saving time dwindle fast.”

Riedel says companies like JSX, Surf Air Mobility and Aero – which offer access to regional semi-private flights – are starting to show that processes can be done differently, and potentially better than traditional airlines, for the regional space. Surf Air has announced multiple agreements with operators from regions including North America, Africa and Asia who want begin electrifying their fleets.

“I think we will start to see routes emerging like Palo Alto Airport to Napa and Sonoma in California. Or smaller airfields around London out to other parts of the UK. Think about what you could do with London City Airport if you had a quiet STOL [short take-off and landing] aircraft. That area could become a hub for moving people and things round the country. 

“In the beginning it will be the big use cases, but I think over time there will be uses that we did not even know are possible if we can bring the cost-related pieces down,” says Riedel.  “For example, if I take blood test in San Francisco it gets flown down to San Diego to the processing facility. There are medical companies with fleets of aircraft doing these missions. Well, some of that can be replaced using a regional air mobility-capable aircraft, and that is just one possible use case.”

Regional air mobility-capable

So what is a regional air mobility-capable aircraft? Heart Aerospace first started out with a fully battery-electric concept it called the ES-19. But in September 2022 it made a design switch to include a hybrid-electric range extender due to concerns over the distance a purely battery-electric aircraft could cover.

Kansas-based The AirCraft Company is also designing a 30-seat hybrid-electric regional aircraft which uses its hybrid element as a range extender. Founders and co-CEOs Mario Asselin and Sylvie St-Georges, who have 65 years of combined experience in aircraft design including the Bombardier Global 7500 and the Global 8000, call it an “electric first design”.

“When designing I looked at the performance triangle. You can play with the drag, weight and efficiency of the powertrain. People say: ‘Won’t the weight be higher with batteries?’ I say: ‘Yes, but I will be four times more efficient powertrain wise. So I can trade those off against each other.”

Asselin uses the example of turbofans and turboshafts, the engines that power today’s regional aircraft. If you look at the Boeing 737, it started as a Dash 100 and now is a Max aircraft, during that time the weight of the engine has grown so much the minimum weight of the aircraft has increased too. So, yes, it is more efficient, but you are adding more weight to carry the more efficient engine. “I said I can do the same with batteries and I know turbofans and turboshafts are highly inefficient if they go to lower values. There is not so much impact on electric motors.” According to Asselin’s research, turbofans and turboprops are between 18-28% efficiency when converting fuel into thrust. With electric propulsion, he is confident of achieving 80%.

The aircraft, aka the SY30J Pangea, has entry into service planned for late 2029. It will have a 400km zero-emission range which can be extended out to 800km-plus when the hybrid element is switched on. Asselin came to the 400km figure when he was first inspired to begin looking at the regional mobility sector. “Sylvie said you have been designing aircraft for other people for 38 years, it is time to do something for yourself. Growing up in rural Canada, the loss of air service was always an issue close to my heart. I used to work at Bombardier, and business aviation is a good tool for this, but it is for the elite. So I thought why not design something that brings people together.” This inspired the company’s slogan “Bringing the World Together”. In the summer of 2023, the leadership also agreed that the design should address the lack of accessibility for people in wheelchairs and the design of the aircraft now reflect this goal.

“I’m lucky. In Wichita, 85% of the traffic that passes through Kansas comes through the city. But the rest of the population has to drive hours to get to an airport. The director of the airport in Wichita published a map that shows how many other destinations it connects, but none of them are within Kansas. The director told me: ‘Nobody wants to go there’. I said: ‘We might want to go there, you’re just not offering any options.’”

Economies change

The reluctance of operators to offer services to lower demand regions may have been catalysed by inefficient aircraft with high operating costs, but it has been perpetuated by other factors over time. In Guernsey, right up until the late 1990s, it could be tough going to find an apartment or board because the island was full of bed-and-breakfast businesses catering to the tourism which regular regional air services brought with it. Fast forward a few decades and you can count on one hand the businesses left over from these glory days.

Unfortunately, the situation is not unique to Guernsey, but when combined with the promise of low-cost regional air mobility there is hope for revival. If the aviation infrastructure – i.e. the runway or terminal building – still exists, then why not build up the destination around it? This is the approach state government is exploring in Utah in the report, “Airports as Connected Activity Centers”, as it prepares for the entry into service of commercial electric aircraft.

“How do we get more use out of our airports? How do we get more use out of this existing infrastructure? In Utah, we are not on the radar of any OEM as an initial launch market, so we have some time to think about this,” Clint Harper, founder of Harper4D Solutions and champion of the aforementioned report, tells us. “Many underestimate the work required to successfully change land-use policies and zoning regulations that will enable new aviation infrastructure development in already built-out areas. This involves a public process that requires care and patience to navigate, and can be very contentious. We could more easily propose the same kind of changes on undeveloped land around existing airports and maximise aviation’s value proposition within the transport system and for regions as a whole. Bring destinations to existing infrastructure, versus bringing infrastructure to existing destinations.” 

It’s not a coincidence that 90% of the population falls so close to a runway, that’s a planned effort says Harper. Population centres emerge around transportation nodes and anytime you have more than one transportation node come together it creates unique economic synergies that shape the economy within that region.

“But economies change and the jobs and needs within a region change with it,” says Harper. “Many smaller communities have struggled to keep up and it can create a downward spiral. Following outreach work in some of these communities, one of the biggest concerns centres around young people moving away because of the lack of opportunities. Regional air mobility offers a mode of access to bring a different set of jobs to a region or make jobs further away more accessible.” 

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