Will Business Aviation Have A Role In Scaling Electric Flight?
March 8, 2024
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  • Speak to anyone in business aviation and they will tell you the sector is an incubator for innovation. Advancements in aerospace technology such as winglets, composite airframes and fly-by-wire systems were all tried and tested in business aviation first.

    “The industry [business aviation] is an incubator of technology, we have always sought to be more efficient and to fly less expensively,” said Kurt Edwards IBAC director general at our sister title Corporate Jet Investor’s London conference last month. “We are the first to introduce new technologies into the broad industry. Those winglets you see on the tips of aircraft wings now; first put on a business jet in 1976. Avionics and glass cockpits which allow aircraft to fly more directly; that was business aviation too.

    “There are developments that take place in our industry first, and then spread and improve the total air transport system.”

    Using that logic, it could follow that business aviation has a role to play in the scale-up of electric flight, particularly on the operations side. Recent agreements between established business aviation fixed-based operators (FBOs) with leading electric aircraft developers show stakeholders in both industries feel similarly. Clay Lacy has agreements with Joby and Overair. Atlantic has announced deals with BETA, Joby and Archer. BETA also just announced a deal today with Signature Aviation, the world’s largest private aviation terminal operator, to install chargers at several on-airport locations across the US east coast. This follows on from a similar deal announced between BETA and AvFlight back in February.

    Not to mention the regulatory framework, which will allow initial operations of eVTOLs and other electric aircraft in the US to be operated as Part 135 flights, which are conducted under the set of Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) guidelines relevant to non-scheduled, commercial aircraft operations, i.e. business aviation.

    “You won’t see these aircraft go into Part 121 – they will operate under Part 135, which has been our centerpiece as an industry,” says Chris Rocheleau, chief operating officer, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). “I understand there has been a lot of news coverage about these partnerships with United, Delta, American, etc.,” he adds. “But the short of it is, the regulatory framework that will enable AAM is Part 135, and that is business aviation-oriented. It’s one of three reasons why Clay Lacy Aviation has stepped in to be a leader in this segment.”

    On top of that, battery-electric aircraft – with vertical takeoff capability or otherwise – only achieve meaningful distances with today’s technology by carrying a lighter payload and/or fewer passengers than an equivalent, conventional or hybrid-powered aircraft. This means initial electric aircraft are well-suited to the needs of private aviation in terms of payload. Although lacking in range, they have a niche (as well as existing demand), supplementing today’s business aircraft for shorter regional missions.

    “Thinking about how these aircraft will operate, it will be short local or regional connectivity, due to the range at present,” Rocheleau notes. “We like to say at NBAA that you have the commercial airlines connecting 500 airports around the country, but in business aviation we provide access to 5,000,” he says.

    Putting down roots 

    “Business aviation will play a pivotal role in the adoption of AAM,” Scott Cutshall, senior vice president, Strategy & Sustainability at Clay Lacy tells us. “The reason being, I believe AAM will begin at existing airports because the airspace and the infrastructure, for the most part, other than charging, already exists.

    “From a community acceptance standpoint, from an airspace standpoint, airports are there to arrive and depart aircraft. So once we have some certified aircraft in the general aviation community, business aviation is where AAM will plant its roots.”

    Clay Lacy began operations as an on-demand jet charter operator at Van Nuys Airport in 1968, before launching the first all-jet FBO in 1981. Cutshall believes FBOs are “ideally situated” and will play a significant role in the early adoption of AAM. “The reason is FBOs exist to serve general aviation aircraft at airports. When these aircraft are certified, they will be general aviation aircraft and will have all the same accommodations as any other aircraft – fuelling, ground handling, connections with ground transportation etc.”

    As noted earlier, the FBO already has much of the necessary infrastructure to accommodate AAM aircraft. Cutshall says Clay Lacy is approaching AAM in much the same way as any other new fleet addition, the only difference is the fuel type. In January it announced a deal with Joby to install Southern California’s “first electric air taxi charger” at John Wayne Airport, Orange County. Later in the month it also announced a deal with Overair to introduce AAM operations throughout the Southern California region.

    “There are a number of AAM companies that have identified the Southern California region as one of their launch markets. We have two wonderful FBOs in the region at Van Nuys, Los Angeles and John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Our purpose currently is to provide that electrical charging infrastructure to enable the start of this industry. 

    “These aircraft can’t fly if they can’t fuel. Electricity is the fuel. So Clay Lacy’s goal is to provide that fuel at our facilities.”

    So far, Cutshall says Clay Lacy has enough power capacity for two high-capacity simultaneous charging pads. Construction is due to begin in the second quarter 2024 on the infrastructure at John Wayne Airport. This is positive news as power challenges have caused delays to the rollout of chargers as grid capacity catches up, especially in the automotive industry. The one obstacle preventing Clay Lacy from installing electric aircraft charging infrastructure at its Van Nuys Airport FBO is a moratorium implemented by Los Angeles City Council last month restricting development at the entire airport. Cutshall says this is something the airport community is working to resolve with the council, and he is hopeful of a resolution.

    Changes to the FBO

    Business aviation players getting into the AAM market today is a sign of things to come, according to David Shilliday, vice president and general manager Advanced Air Mobility at Honeywell. As a global Tier One supplier, Honeywell components can be found in almost every aircraft, the same goes for AAM platforms too. Honeywell has announced a number of partnerships with electric aircraft OEMs such as Archer, Lilium and Heart Aerospace.

    “I like to think about how FBOs will support operations at EIS and how they will evolve as the operations scale. What does that mix of aircraft look like and what are the missions they are going to serve?” says Shilliday. “I think FBOs are getting ready by leveraging existing infrastructure, I think fleet operators are getting ready and I think the OEMs are trying to work out what the right mix of solutions is they need to have to support all of the customers they have. People are still going to want to fly long distances and these aircraft are not yet equipped for that, so you are going to need a mix of traditional and new.”

    Initial customer base 

    Business aviation’s customer base also lends itself to initial AAM operations, according to Clay Lacy’s Cutshall. He says there has been a lot of talk about “long-term vision”, but Cutshall likes to think of AAM in terms of “near term, mid-term and long-term vision”.

    “As you progress along that timeline in the near term, there will be fewer operations and there will be fewer aircraft. Therefore, the price point will be higher,” he explains. “So the most likely people to fly on electric aircraft, eVTOLs in particular, as the industry begins will be business aviation users. As more aircraft are delivered, and as more charging infrastructure and vertiports get built out and co-location of vertiports with transportation hubs gets built out over the coming decades, that price point will come down making travel by AAM a reality for even more users.

    “As the industry scales, I think you will also start to see a slight move away from traditional FBO models for AAM in favour of larger vertiports co-located with other modes of transportation.”

    NBAA’s Rocheleau agrees. He highlights a vision of the growth potential for AAM firms like Supernal. “They’re forecasting that they will manufacture a lot of these aircraft, and that is where the price point really begins to become much more normal for regular travellers like me or you. Say for example, I want to go from Virginia to Washington, D.C., in the morning and don’t mind paying $50-$100, because I have an important meeting to get to. 

    “You watch – once this segment proves itself to be safe and affordable, I believe it is going to expand nicely across the world.”

    Regional opportunities 

    Munich-based startup VÆRIDION has singled out business aviation as a key target entry market for its nine-passenger battery-electric aircraft – aka Microliner. Co-founder and CEO Ivor van Dartel says he concluded such an aircraft size would be within the realms of possibility back in his days studying at the Delft University of Technology, and then working for Airbus. There he learned two things: Electric flight is much easier on a smaller scale and new propulsion is better suited to a newly designed aero structure.

    “I quit my job and asked my friend and colleague Sebastien to join me. We then collected initial funding from venture capital investors, and basically came up with the size of the plane because of three angles. First, physics. We believe that if you have pure battery-electric aircraft, you can’t go much bigger than what is essentially a general aviation aircraft. So, we think nine seats is feasible. But 19 seats is still a little bit too far away,” van Dartel tells us.

    The second point is regulatory. If an aircraft holds nine seats or below, it still qualifies for level three of CS23 – EASA’s regulation for normal, utility, aerobatic and commuter aeroplanes. Anything above that becomes a level four, which is a considerably bigger certification effort, says van Dartel.

    Thirdly, the firm sees a unit economic advantage with a nine-seater. Van Dartel thinks its price point should compete in a very non-business aviation-like way with an ATR 42 or similar aircraft. Having a nine-seater aircraft enables VÆRIDION to open up thinner routes where filling up the 40 seats on a regular basis, if at all, is not possible.

    VÆRIDION has cooperation agreements with Danish charter operators Copenhagen AirTaxi and Copenhagen Helicopter. The firms plan to test Microliner on the Copenhagen to Læsø route (an island in the north of Denmark).

    Van Dartel completed his first study on electric aircraft 17 years ago. “Well, back then, there was the big promise of lithium sulphur that would get us to 500 watt hours per kilogram, and that would come online in 2010,” he says. “Well by now there are lithium sulphur cells that flew on unmanned platforms, but none have made a breakthrough. 

    “We have now lithium-ion NMC [nickel, manganese, and cobalt] cells out there in the higher 300 or even 400 range in the lab stage. We also found that if you optimise well enough for aerodynamics and weight, our current generation of battery technology is good enough to have a meaningful range of up to 500km IFR.”

    Regulatory, technology and customer-base factors aside, the business aviation community, especially from an association standpoint, is ready and willing to help scale AAM and electric flight in general. Collaboration across many parties has often been key to getting new technologies off the ground. Rocheleau explains: “No matter the concept – whether we’re talking about regional air mobility, or flying from 30th Street Heliport down to JFK – we’re able to help because of the expansiveness of our own operations and advocacy work. I think we are going to see the success of early operations build quickly upon itself. 

    “One of the things that we do here at NBAA, and I play a role in specifically, is the whole industry, government-engagement piece, bringing people together, working through some of the challenges and sharing our experiences. Many of us – thinking about the rollout of some of the next generation materials that have made their way into the US National Airspace System – have tackled similar challenges before. So, there is the ability to help educate, shape perceptions and bring people together.”