On The Radar
Especially in the wake of Covid’s body blow to the air transport industry, it’s an unforgiving world out there among airlines. The prospect of electric aircraft existed before the pandemic, but will commercial operators now see this as a viable part of their medium-term recovery and long-term future?
A new joint study by transportation consultants Roland Berger and the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) addresses this point head-on by questioning whether electric aircraft can ever compete on cost with existing airliners. Yes and no is their answer.
NLR evaluated a hypothetical 19-seat sub-regional all-electric aircraft that had been produced by modifying a 1980s-vintage BAE Jetstream 32 twin turboprop. They gave it the snappy name NLR-RB-19E and determined that it would be able to operate on routes of up to around 700 km (438 miles). This was based on what the authors, Nikhil Sachdeva, senior project manager with Roland Berger, and Wim Lammen, a research engineer with NLR, admit is the optimistic assumption that batteries with an energy density of 1,000 Wh/kg would be available. Even then, it is acknowledged that a turbine engine would be needed as a backup.
At face value, the report concludes that this aircraft would be 10 percent less expensive than a conventional sub-regional one due to its lower energy and maintenance costs. However, the authors say this does not take account of real-world factors such as airport charges and the need for more sectors to be flown to carry the same number of fare-paying passengers as larger regional airliners. Once these are factored in, the imaginary electric aircraft would be 35 percent more expensive than Embraer’s larger ERJ-145 jet, 45 percent more expensive than the ATR42 twin-turboprop, and 65 percent more expensive than the much larger A319neo.
One way to square this circle, say the authors, is for governments to subsidize airport charges to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly electric aircraft. They also acknowledge that these could use smaller, less expensive airports that would offer more direct door-to-door connections for travelers.
But the report seems to conclude that these may not be realistic assumptions. Roland Berger and NLR have now agreed to continue this line of inquiry. They want to assess whether larger, hybrid-electric aircraft could give jet-A-chugging existing models more of a run for their money. Plenty of pioneers now working on this technology are betting that this is the case.