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  • Writer's pictureHeini Noronen-Juhola

Electric aviation as an ecosystem business

Now that the price of oil is high and the need for environmentally sound aviation solutions is urgent, the discussion and lobbying for supporting electric flying is vigorous. Te need for these kinds of solutions is clear. However, proper analytical discussions about the sustainable way to enhance electric flying as a business are hard to find.

At this point the electric aviation is rather immature as a business. We have seen photos of small electric aircrafts, that are airworthy, but are flying for private or test purposes. Much more we have seen articles with visualizations of futuristic looking passenger aircrafts. Many times these articles are describing how the electric flying will change the future. Yes, but how is the business done in the aviation ecosystem at that point?

The big aircraft manufacturers with their own ecosystems are developing commercially sound electric aircrafts and the technologies supporting them. At the same time there's a large start-up society focusing on the same thing. So far there is no one specific solution or technology standard to which all the companies could put their efforts. If you focus on some technology that won't gain enough interest in the end among the aviation operators, you might end up losing a lot of money with failed investments. Or, you might have solution where there is no technical support or upgrade potential available.

Even though you might get a feasible electric aircraft, you have to make a payback plan for it. Operating costs like maintenance, crew, training or updates are airline´s own costs, but if we take a look at the charging costs, there might be some uncertainties. That's because those services typically are provided by the other stakeholders.

If we are talking about the airports as the provider of the charging infrastructure, there are similar challenges compared with the electric aircraft solutions. If you as an airport invest heavily in the electric aircraft charging stations, you might end up having a technically unfeasible solution, solution that is outdated pretty soon or some other ways of working will just drive over these solutions. Making a decision about the technology at this early phase of the business cycle is very risky.

The charging stations also have to have a payback plan. Especially in cases where we are talking about large scale commercial passenger traffic, we are talking about big investments to the infrastructure. First of all the whole electricity system at the airport has to have enough capacity to provide electricity to many electric aircrafts at the same time. The charging time has to be quick and efficient so that the turnaround time for the aircraft doesn't get too long.

Secondly the charging stations would need to be able to serve many kinds of electric aircrafts based on many technical solutions. Understanding all this, how can the charging price be on a level where the charging of an aircraft is profitable for the airline and at the same time the airport can get some profit for their investments?

There's also a chance that the charging of an aircraft would be provided by the airline itself or a ground handling company. Currently the normal aviation fuelling business is in the regulation understood as a ground handling service. As charging an aircraft is also a sort of fuelling, why not purchase the charging service from a company that is specialized to it and who can make a proper business agreement about it with the airline?

Before there will be a large scale commercial electric flying, there will most probably be some small passenger electric aircrafts flying to nearby cities or larger aircrafts who have retrofitted one or two of the original engines to electric engines and therefore created hybrid aircrafts. For an airport, creating a charging infrastructure for this kind of limited need, it might not be a good business case. At that point, we'll see at airports most likely smaller mobile charging stations. Those stations can be operated by the charging companies as well. If the aircrafts have replaceable batteries, that task is then clearly an airline maintenance task.

Before we can talk about electric aviation as a business, we have to understand the needs and business cases for each member of the value chain. The earlier we do this, the earlier we can really start preparing for the electric aviation as a normal business and a part of the transportation industry. That's the only way it really becomes sustainable.

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