Short lines with fast turnaround times and no carbon emissions. The Norwegian customer and the Finnish interested party, Tecnam and Heart types.
The exciting plans of previous years seem to have split aviatics in two: a large number of the concepts seeking new propulsion systems are electric-powered air taxis for up to four people, mainly for urban use, and are being pursued by many start-ups, even small ones, from China to America; on the other hand, the large aircraft world is starting to see variations, such as the hydrogen and hybrid aircraft announced in the Airbus ZEROe programme, with a promised entry into service in 2035.
However, in recent weeks and months, a category that has been less talked about in the past, regional passenger and freight transport, but which seems to be moving forward with problems that can be solved much sooner, is starting to make inroads, with aircraft that could be in service in a few years. It is interesting and important that the two recently unveiled programmes bring together technology suppliers and users, airlines, in a single team.
A Norwegian-based airline, Widerøe. It has a network of 400 daily flights and forty-four airports, almost three quarters of the routes are shorter than 275 kilometres, half are less than 200 and some are less than 100: isolated communities are connected and kept virtually alive by the company, partly under a state-funded commitment.
The solution: to replace the twenty ageing de Havilland Dash 8-100s that Widerøe is currently using with smaller and less polluting models, given that the current thirty-seven-passenger aircraft sometimes only fly with five to ten passengers. The partners are Rolls-Royce, which supplies the propulsion, and Tecnam, an Italian company we know, which is converting its Lycoming twin-engined nine-seater P2012 into an electric commercial aircraft called the P-Volt – the rear hatch makes it ideal for cargo transport. The short-haul plane first flew in 2016, with the first examples delivered in 2019, and Cape Air in Massachusetts alone has ordered a hundred of the type.
The P2012 will have to be extensively modified to become a P-Volt, and Tecnam, for example, said that the weight of the aircraft will be increased by the batteries, but that the weight of the landing weight will not be reduced compared to take-off, so the structure, wing and landing gear will have to be modified. But this is much easier to do on a fresh design than on an older type. The quick battery change with turnaround times of up to a quarter of an hour is made possible by the fact that the power sources are carried in a “containerised” manner in a separate compartment under the belly of the machine. This of course requires the infrastructure to be built at airports, so that the batteries can be recharged on the ground by the gentler slow charging process.
It has attracted considerable attention that a major European traditional airline, Finnair, has signed a document – not yet a full commitment, but a serious “letter of interest” – with the Swedish company Heart Aerospace, which already has such a preliminary contract for a total of 147 examples of the all-new ES-19, a class larger than the P-Volt, with nineteen seats and a range of 400 kilometres.
The seriousness of the story is demonstrated by the fact that a separate association (Nordic Network for Electric Aviation) has been set up to develop electric commercial aviation in the Nordic region, with Heart’s participation and the participation of airlines such as Finnair, SAS and Icelandair. The ES-19 is also scheduled to enter service in 2026, with four wing-mounted pods housing the batteries, motors and low-noise, slow-rotating, seven-inch propellers, an arrangement that requires fast charging at the airport.
According to recent research, if electric flights were to become fully operational on routes shorter than 600 nautical miles, this would result in a 40% reduction in emissions and a 15% fuel saving, but if electric planes were to fly on routes shorter than 1200 miles, emissions would be reduced by 60% and fuel consumption by 40%.