Loganair: Frequency makes it viable
Despite regional electric aircraft offering the promise of cheaper flights, economic viability will only be possible with higher flight frequency. As new technology, they will have higher acquisition and ownership costs, Andy Smith, head of Sustainability Strategy, Loganair told Revolution.Aero.
Increased frequency is good news for regional aviation users. “The only way operators can make that equation pay back is if they work the asset harder. But that’s good because the aircraft have low emissions, so it is net positive. The barrier though, is that you often need rapid charging, which is a massive power draw. This can be expensive and, crucially, a long lead-time issue for airports,” said Smith.
In 2021, Loganair assisted in a hybrid-electric flight test programme at Kirkwall Airport on the Scottish island of Orkney. To upgrade the airport for regular use by electric aircraft, it considered an additional 500KVA (1KVA = 1,000 volt amps) grid connection. “This was going to cost several million pounds and crucially three to five years to complete.”
Such costs and time support the case for hydrogen-electric aviation. The infrastructure required for hydrogen could be built for a similar cost and in a similar timescale, but you get a more capable system in terms of range and speed, said Smith.
A potential solution for battery-electric aircraft looks at recycling on-wing batteries. “The batteries in electric aircraft are going to require changing fairly frequently – within a year or less depending on flight hours. You can then consolidate those batteries into a mobile unit and use that unit to recharge the aircraft. Also, if there is renewable energy available on the grid that can be captured at peak production times to power the consolidated battery unit,” he said.
So when can we expect to see regional electric air services operational? That’s the million- dollar question, according to Smith. By 2040, Norway intends all short-haul flights leaving its airports to be on aircraft powered by electricity.
“Part of the challenge here is that you’ve got a lot of ambitious, aggressive OEMs who are trying to court investors and, to do that, a key part of their selling point is to reach market first or very near-term. Yet very few of these entities have any track record of certifying aircraft. And even if they do the regulatory system isn’t used to this technology.”
Smith does not believe that there are gaps in the regulations from an airframe certification perspective. “The challenge is that not having institutional experience of certifying a product, they don’t know what they don’t know. So, for me as an operator, I treat the timescales that are being proposed with some scepticism. Having said that I don’t think there’s major technological leaps required to certify.”
Smith uses the example of the Tecnam P-Volt an Italian light electric aircraft under development by Tecnam in conjunction with Rolls-Royce. The P-Volt uses a modern, existing airframe, that is already compliant with FAA and EASA regulations “You have two entities who both have experience in certifying commercial aviation products, therefore I would say their timescales are amongst some of the most credible. They’re more interested in chasing customers than they are in chasing investors.”
That puts entry into service between 2026 and 2028. “If you throw enough money at the problem, you can make anything fly, but can you make that into an attractive, commercially viable product The challenge with the P-Volt is very limited range and therefore operators have to find a way to utilise that capability,” said Smith.