Abby Narishkin, Alexandra Appolonia Business Insider
Inside a $4 million electric plane, the first full-size, all-electric passenger aircraft in the world
November 6, 2020
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  • Narrator: This is the world’s first full-sized, all-electric passenger plane. Her name is Alice. Now, she isn’t the first attempt at an electric passenger plane. Previous attempts looked like this, a glider or an old seaplane retrofitted with an electric engine. But Alice is different.

    Omer Bar-Yohay: The Eviation Alice is a nine-passenger, two-crew, all-electric commuter aircraft. This aircraft is built from the ground up to be electric. It’s not a conversion of anything.

    Narrator: Israeli aeronautics company Eviation started work on Alice back in 2015 and debuted the plane in June 2019. Its goal? To find a sustainable way to move people regionally. Air travel is one of the fastest-growing contributors to climate change. And even mid-pandemic, when travel has dipped, the airline industry’s carbon footprint is still outpacing predictions. Regional travel is a big component of that footprint. In 2017, half of the 4 billion air tickets sold were for regional flights. Even though these were short distances, the aircraft used were huge jet planes built to cross oceans.

    Bar-Yohay: That’s an insanity because we’re using the wrong tools for the job.

    Narrator: Alice might be a solution for these popular commuter routes. Think New York City to DC or even up the West Coast between San Jose and San Diego. The plane is built to fly up to 650 miles on just one charge of its lithium-ion battery, the distance from London to Prague. And it’s designed to carry passengers at cruising speeds of about 276 miles per hour. Now, that’s about half as fast as jet-fueled planes, so a one-hour-10-minute flight from New York City to DC would be about two and a half hours on Alice, but Alice could do that journey emissions-free. It seems ideal, but engineers faced a few challenges while building Alice.

    Bar-Yohay: It has a huge battery. We have roughly 3.6 metric tons of battery, over 8,000 pounds.

    Narrator: In electric cars, a battery’s weight isn’t as much of an issue, because cars stay on the ground. But in a plane, trying to get in the air with a heavy battery becomes a challenge. The bigger the battery, the more power for the plane, but a bigger battery also means more weight to lift, so more power is needed to get it in the air. In normal airplanes, an estimated 30% of the plane’s maximum takeoff weight is jet fuel. And that weight lessens over time, as jet fuel is burned while in the air. But for Alice…

    Bar-Yohay: We’re roughly at 60% of maximum takeoff weight, meaning 60% of the plane when it takes off is battery. It’s the same when it lands; we don’t lose anything.

    Narrator: So Eviation had two solutions for a heavy battery. Engineers distributed the battery throughout the plane.

    Bar-Yohay: That battery’s literally all over the place. It’s under the floor, it’s in the wings, in the fuselage in different locations.

    Narrator: Then they balanced out the battery’s sheer weight.

    Bar-Yohay: The way to do it is just to build everything else very light.

    Narrator: Alice has a lightweight airframe, slim wings, and wing-tip propellers.

    Bar-Yohay: It has a lifting body, which means it looks like a, for lack of a better description, an upside-down boat. All of those features were built to create a more efficient airframe at cruise.

    Narrator: Another key feature that sets Alice apart is its lift-to-drag ratio, or how much lift the wing generates compared to how much drag it creates moving through the air. A regular plane has a lift-to-drag ratio of 17:1. For Alice, that rate is 25:1, meaning it’s more aerodynamically efficient and uses less energy getting into the air. For future passengers, all this environmentally conscious innovation means a lot less traveler’s guilt.

    Bar-Yohay: I think it’s important that the industry looks at its responsibilities to the planet and makes itself more sustainable in terms of emissions, but it needs to work economically.

    Narrator: Some players in the industry say electric planes could mean 40% to 80% lower airfares. That’s because it doesn’t cost as much to operate an electric plane. Eviation’s Alice costs about $200 per flight hour to operate. A similarly performing turboprop would cost between $1,200 and $2,000 per flight hour. But in order to be truly sustainable, Omer says people have to actually want to fly electric.

    Bar-Yohay: This needs to feel like a plane you want to use daily.

    Narrator: So, how does Alice do that? Designers wanted the windows to be big enough to increase visibility, and they added stability technology to help with turbulence. Plus, Alice’s electric engine is practically silent.

    Bar-Yohay: This plane is dramatically less noisy, about two orders of magnitude less noisy than an equivalently sized aircraft. I think it could change the way we treat airports.

    Narrator: Despite testing hiccups in early January, Omer estimates the plane will be certified by 2022. US-based airline Cape Air has already decided to buy the aircraft at $4 million per plane. The airline plans to introduce Alice into its fleet, serving regional routes from Boston to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and up into New Hampshire and New York.

    Bar-Yohay: In the very beginning, it was extremely difficult to convince partners, clients, anybody, investors that we’re not delusional. Today it feels like everybody’s on board and this is where the industry should go. The industry is beginning to notice that there is really a tectonic shift here.