Electrification, Automation Could Transform Regional Air Service

 - July 21, 2021, 9:15 AM
Xwing aims to operate aircraft such as the Cessna Grand Caravan on commercial cargo and passenger services using its autonomous flight technology. (Photo: Xwing)

New propulsion systems and technologies such as autonomous flight controls have the potential to support transformative business models for regional air service, according to a trio of experts addressing this week's Electric Aircraft Symposium (EAS) organized by the CAFE Foundation and the Vertical Flight Society. Beyond the prospect of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft operating from vertiports across urban areas, the panelists painted a picture of new and converted fixed-wing aircraft with small numbers of passengers covering routes of up to about 250 miles that wouldn't turn a profit under traditional airline business models.

For example, Xwing is a California-based start-up looking to launch commercial freight and, eventually, passenger services, with aircraft such as the Cessna Grand Caravan that it is fitting with its autonomous flight systems. Product manager Kevin Atcliff told the EAS that its plans include the use of aircraft with 20 or fewer passengers or with an equivalent cargo payload.

Until recently, Atcliff worked with NASA and helped to produce its April 2021 white paper, Regional Air Mobility: Leveraging Our National Investments to Energize the American Travel Experience. He claimed that removing the need for pilots could cut operating costs by around 40 percent, with a further 25 percent reduction resulting from a switch from turbine engines to electric propulsion.

In Xwing’s view, autonomous operations could double utilization for some aircraft, producing further savings based on a better return on assets, and reduced insurance costs. That would make it viable for operators to serve many more of the 5,000 public airports across the U.S, and potentially some of the 14,000 private airfields, too.

Since last year, Xwing has been conducting cargo flights under an FAA experimental license with a converted Grand Caravan. The company aims to win approval to operate scheduled freight services in the autonomously controlled aircraft by 2022 and believes the FAA will eventually give clearance for passenger flights.

In Europe, aviation consultant Darrell Swanson is exploring ways to significantly expand "sub-regional" air service, using more efficient, smaller aircraft to directly connect provincial cities and bypass the traditional hub-and-spoke air transport model. As part of a study for the UK Department of Transport, he used cell phone data to track individual journeys across the country and assess more efficient ways to make them with aircraft as an alternative to cars and trains.

The data presented in Swanson’s report, Distributed Aviation and Regional Air Mobility, revealed what he calls sub-regional airline opportunities to serve medium-range domestic routes of between around 200  and 400 km (125 to 250 miles), such as Southampton to Manchester. It also identified a strong business case for using eVTOL aircraft on routes of great value to a particular industry or group of customers, such as one to carry oil workers between Aberdeen and Sumburgh in Scotland. Swanson’s analysis has identified similar sub-regional business models in countries such as France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Spain, as well as in Asia.

Michael Dyment, managing partner with strategic consultancy and investment group Nexa Advisors, has identified similar opportunities in the U.S. The company recently completed a study for Ohio’s transportation department that showed how electric aircraft could boost air service between multiple cities across the state. He told the EAS audience that such opportunities will increase as improved electric propulsion technology, notably batteries, increases the range of eVTOL aircraft to between 150 and 250 miles.

According to Dyment, the cost of ground infrastructure is a big factor in underpinning the business case for new modes of regional air service. “The cost of building a brand-new, 50-million-passenger airport somewhere in the central U.S. is higher than the cost of building out vertiports and other advanced air mobility infrastructure in 30 to 40 other U.S. cities,” he said. Nexa plans to announce significant investments in U.S. air mobility infrastructure by early 2022.

This story is from FutureFlight.aero, a news and information resource developed by AIN to provide objective, independent coverage, and analysis of cutting-edge aviation technology, including electric aircraft developments and advanced air mobility.