Business aviation had a good pandemic. As airlines grounded flights and governments imposed strict international travel rules, many of those who could afford to turned to private flying. Instead of two-hour check-ins and long security lines, clients could be driven to the steps of aircraft that departed when they wished, cocooning them in a Covid-secure cabin. There were attentive crew on hand to ensure paperwork was complete, and even rapid test facilities at some terminals.
So it was an upbeat sector that arrived in Geneva this week for the first annual European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition, or EBACE, since 2019. Charter operators say demand for their services has returned to, or overtaken, pre-pandemic levels, new aircraft sales are growing, and there is a shortage of used equipment for sale, bolstering residuals. There are recruitment campaigns for pilots and other staff.
But there are headwinds. The closure of the Russian market due to sanctions and a wobbling global economy is taking some of the shine off the optimism. Business aviation has another challenge too. How does an industry whose purpose is to deliver the gift of time and convenience to a small number of wealthy people become green? The sector is under pressure to cut its substantial carbon footprint, and the debate around ways of achieving that was the biggest talking point at EBACE.
Sustainable aviation fuel – made from plants or recycled waste oil – is one short-term solution, but SAF is still very hard to source and expensive, and most aircraft are only permitted to fly on a maximum 50% blend. Disruptive propulsion is a longer-term hope. However, while EBACE had no shortage of electric or hybrid-electric concepts on show, the (current) laws of physics deem that flying anything larger or heavier on battery power than a nine-seat turboprop is impossible.
However, electric power is the holy grail, and a number of companies – several of which were at EBACE – are talking about their designs becoming operational in a matter of years. Developers are split into two camps – those offering electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) platforms, largely for local or “last mile” services and using city centre “vertiports”, and developers of battery-powered or hybrid versions of more conventional, fixed-wing aircraft, that will require existing runways.
A key difference is that eVTOL companies are talking about creating an entirely new market by taking ground-based city travel into a third dimension. Those pushing the fixed-wing option are focused on replacing existing forms of air transport – private and regional commercial – with more environmentally-friendly options. The aircraft will perform exactly the same missions as their conventionally-fueled counterparts.
Eviation is one of the latter. The US/Israeli start-up is preparing to fly its all-electric, nine-seat Alice prototype “this summer”. French firm Daher says its hybrid EcoPulse demonstrator – based on a TBM 900 series turboprop – is on track to take to the air for the first time in 2022. Meanwhile, Slovenia’s Pipistrel, which has just been acquired by US giant Textron, is aiming to have several electric-powered products on the market in the next few years.
Californian developer Joby is taking a different approach. As it works on certificating its electrically-powered eVTOL ahead of a planned 2024 launch, it intends to start offering on-demand services this year using a Cirrus SR22 to test the air taxi concept. If that feels like déjà vu, it is because 15 or more years ago, a flurry of entrepreneurs tried the regional air taxi model using that same model of piston-powered aircraft. Few of them prospered.
For pilots, all this activity is good news. While eVTOL developers hope their designs will at some point fly autonomously, for the next decade or two, these platforms will require trained pilots. So too will the new breed of electric-powered fixed-wing aircraft. If they are able to prove that they can operate more cheaply than today’s small aircraft, they could open up aviation links to many more communities, potentially creating hundreds of thousands more flight deck opportunities.
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