Airport charges: how one company is clearing the skies for electric flight

Airlines are in a race against time to find environmentally friendly and sustainable aviation fuels. Canada-based seaplane carrier Harbour Air reckons it has cracked oil dependence, and is aiming to offer zero-emission, all-electric commercial flights by 2022. CEO and founder Greg McDougall talks to Justin Gerdes.

Aviation is facing a notoriously difficult climate challenge. Pre-Covid, global aviation emissions were soaring, with solutions seemingly on the distant horizon. But it turns out that boarding a zero-emission flight may be just around the corner.

Pioneers at seaplane airline Harbour Air, based in British Columbia, Canada, are charting a new course for the industry: all-electric short-haul flights. Harbour Air conducted the first successful test flight of the eBeaver, the “world’s first commercial electric airplane”, in December 2019, and they are regularly performing tests in the hope that they will soon be able to replace their entire fleet.

Flying high

Harbour Air is a small company, offering schedule flights at 12 locations along the west coast of Canada and Seattle. The company was founded in 1982, to service the forestry industry in British Columbia. But even though they had humble beginnings, Harbour Air is paving the way for eco-friendly aviation.

McDougall says: “The company has always looked at evolving technology and being innovative.

“We’ve always had a guiding principle for the company to be as environmentally oriented as possible because the areas we serve are very pristine. We also operate in and out of downtown areas which have changed from industrialised harbours to residential neighbourhoods. So we have to consider noise, pollution and carbon footprints.”

Harbour Air CEO, founder and test pilot Greg McDougall. Credit: Harbour Air 

Carbon-neutral flight

Harbour Air became carbon neutral through carbon offsets 14 years ago, but the company wanted to take it further.

McDougall explains: “Becoming carbon neutral was our first big step towards environmental change. We are still practically the only airline in the world that offsets our carbon footprint for every flight, every ticket, every hour we fly.

“We are able to do that because we fly short distances and operate smaller, single engine aircraft that has a pretty low carbon footprint.

“It became apparent to me a few years back, when I was watching the electrification of modes of transportation, that we have an opportunity very few people have because of these short distances and smaller aircraft.”

Our aim is to eventually electrify the entire fleet.

After partnering with MagniX, engineers were able to retrofit some of Harbour Air’s existing seaplanes with electric motors and batteries. Even though regular testing is still ongoing, Harbour Air hopes to deliver the first fully electric commercial flight for customers.

McDougall explains: “Our aim is to eventually electrify the entire fleet.

“We are doing flights a couple times a week to gather data towards the supplemental type certificate that we need to obtain from the regulator to be able to fly our first paying passenger.”

Since that first flight, Harbour Air has conducted multiple test flights to gather performance data required for certification. Last month, Harbour Air and magniX announced a partnership with H55, a battery supplier and Solar Impulse spin-off based in Switzerland.

Working alongside magniX and H55, Harbour Air plans to retrofit all its seaplanes to create an all-electric fleet. Fossil fuel engines will be replaced by electric motors and fuel tanks traded for lithium-ion battery packs, which have rival levels of energy density to standard jet fuel.

Never one to throw something away that works, Harbour Air has even upgraded and retrofitted some planes, engines and parts, from the 1950s to work with its state-of-the-art electric engine technology.

Carbon-free batteries

For the aviation industry to sit up and take notice of what Harbour Air is doing, all-electric commercial flights need to start happening. And Harbour Air reckon they will be carbon-free in the skies with paying passengers next year – once they have assaulted the mountain of red tape.

Before McDougall and his team convert all their planes to electric, the technology needs to be independently verified as safe.

In test flights, McDougall is proud to say that they have come across very few hurdles and glitches, but Transport Canada Civil Aviation still needs to conduct various tests in order to officially licence paying passenger flights.

We are in uncharted territory.

McDougall says: “I am happy to continue being the test pilot, because the aircraft performs flawlessly.

“We have had very few glitches, and nothing of major consequence in the way the whole propulsion system functions.

“I am confident that with enough flights and technical tests, we can prove to the regulator that it is safe enough for operation.”

As aviation pioneers, there is no set time scale to get the electric planes ready – Harbour Air is taking its time in order to make sure the technology is right before going commercial.

McDougall says: “The thing about pioneering is that the goalposts are not fixed, but we believe it should be achievable within the 2022 timeframe.

“The process for getting a supplemental type certificate however, although well defined, has never been applied to a fully electric commercial aircraft. We are in unchartered territory.”

Power play

While traditional turbine engines cause a whole host of expensive issues, the new, electric plane engines could reduce maintenance costs for carriers. Turbine engines that power traditional planes run so hot that a lot of systems and shielding need to be in place to make sure they don’t malfunction.

However, the electric motor is far simpler compared to the turbine engine, and it gives off significantly less heat.

McDougall says: “The electric motor is simple compared with a turbine engine, and it has very little heat.

“It basically operates with a couple of bearings, some magnets and some windings. That transmits into simplicity of maintenance and much lower overhaul costs.

“We will have to replace batteries and other items, but that will still not come close to the operating costs we currently have.”

We just have to prove the reliability of the technology now, and that is getting better all the time.

But while the electric planes don’t need to be refuelled, the batteries need to be charged, and they will also need to be replaced regularly – but the cost to the environment, and the carrier, is significantly reduced.

McDougall adds: “Every flight, I marvel that everything works so well. The aircraft performs pretty much like the conventional de Havilland Beavers planes.

“The performance is amazing - it performs like it has a turbine engine although it has an electric engine.

“On safety, we have not run into anything that we still have to figure out.

“We just have to prove the reliability of the technology now, and that is getting better all the time.”

Next steps

Harbour Air reckon that within the next five to ten years, more carriers will turn to electric planes, once all the kinks in the technology have been ironed out – especially because the costs are relatively low.

Some existing planes can be converted with electric engines, and the necessary equipment for airports to ‘refuel’ the batteries is minimal.

There is a big revolution on the way – we are at the leading edge.

Eventually, Harbour Air wants to get into the retrofitting market themselves, and create propulsion kits for other operators to install on their planes – especially light, single-engine aircraft like the popular Cessna 172.

“When you look at the number of aircraft that could be retrofitted with electric propulsion, there are a whole lot of options and opportunities.

“It is almost a shortcut because a new, clean-sheet aircraft, from design to certification, requires an incredible amount of time and money, especially if you are using new technology,” McDougall adds.

“This is going to be a lot faster than that - we are able to retrofit existing airframes because they are tried and tested. All you are doing is retrofitting the electric propulsion system.

“If you look at the statistics, there is a tremendous number of smaller airports and airports that are in areas susceptible to noise pollution - electrification would open that market up, too.

“There is a big revolution on the way - we are at the leading edge.”

This article first appeared on Energy Monitor.