Forget the High-Speed Rail Fiasco: Whisper-Quiet Electric Airplanes Will Transform Travel in America
Suddenly all those little airports across the country left for dead will bounce back to life as whisper-clean new airplanes recall a golden age of American air travel.
When it comes to crass opportunism Donald Trump never disappoints. A few hours after the Washington State train disaster he tweeted that it “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”
Really? That “plan” has been MIA for a year. Wasn’t this guy supposed to be shovel-ready from day one? He came to office with few of the competencies normally expected of a president, but he was supposed to be a builder of things. So whatever happened to making our infrastructure great again?
In fact, the Trump administration’s proposed transportation budget actually cuts funding for both long-distance Amtrak lines and for expanding existing services.
Then there was the 11-hour blackout at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport that revealed that one of the most critical points in the nation’s commercial aviation infrastructure lacked even the most basic back-up system.
Visitors from abroad were among many thousands of passengers who must have wondered how this could happen in any nation claiming world-class status.
But every day visitors coming through New York’s two international airports, Newark and Kennedy, for the first time still can’t believe there is no direct rail link into Manhattan. The eight-mile long so-called AirTrain from JFK dumps passengers on to the decrepit and squalid subway system and delivers them to the wretched and bewildering hell hole of Penn Station. Great way to say, “Welcome to America.”
Of course, Trump is full of shit but the problem does not lie with him alone. Infrastructure needs vision and investments over the long-term. A political system created by both parties puts government-administered programs at the mercy of annual crises over funding, including the threat of government shutdowns. And there’s a whole lot of Republicans in Congress who don’t want to spend a cent on infrastructure.
But when it comes to the future of aviation that may not matter. Luckily, new technologies tend to acquire a logic and momentum of their own that politicians can’t sabotage. That’s already apparent with the way that green energy is displacing fossil fuels whether the Koch brothers like it or not. And it’s about to happen to the way we fly.
Remember, the future is always immanent before it actually appears – smart phone technology was in place long before the iPhone grabbed the potential. In the same way a revolution in domestic air travel that will shape the 2020s is beginning to emerge and it won’t depend on political action to make it happen.
In a strange way the future is going to feel a lot like the past – but better. In America in the 1950s and ‘60s you could fly between small cities on a network of small airlines with strong geographical identities – for example, Mohawk Airlines linked cities in New York like Albany, Binghamton, Ithaca, Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester. Even as late as 1980 there were nearly 300 small airlines serving the country.
That kind of convenience disappeared with airline deregulation and the series of mergers that have left us with an oligopoly of just five major airlines with no interest in serving small airports. There are around 4,000 small city airports in the U.S. but just 200 of them have scheduled airline service.
Given that America, unlike most other advanced countries, has no decent local railroad services, the withdrawal of those short-hop flights threw many people on to highways, which themselves are now wanting for maintenance and renewal.
The problem was that the airplanes that served those local airlines were a mixture of small jets and propeller-power that were not efficient enough to make economic sense in today’s cut-throat market. In effect, cities were waiting for the airplane to be re-invented.
That happened with deliberate symbolism when on July 10, 2015, European airplane maker Airbus flew the E-Fan, a small “technology demonstrator” across the English Channel to mark the anniversary of the day in 1909 when Louis Bleriot made the first overwater flight on the same route. The E-Fan had two all-electric engines – outwardly they looked like jet engines but were entirely driven by battery power.
Since then almost 70 electrically powered aviation projects have been launched around the world, nearly half of them as independent start-ups.
Designers have cleverly turned the basic problem of electrical power in aviation into a singular advantage. Right now, and for at least the next decade, batteries will not be able to provide enough power for an airplane the size of the single-aisle jets that dominate domestic air travel. That’s because the viability of electric propulsion is caught in a trap between the power that can be generated and the weight of the batteries – with present battery technology the sweet spot is an airplane large enough only for around 12 passengers.
But that also happens to be the sweet spot for the economics of a commuter airplane flying routes between secondary cities of no more than 700 miles in length, most of them much shorter. Flying at around 340 mph the E-commuter would reduce an 11 hour journey by car to around two hours.
This is the formula that has been seized by a Washington State start-up, Zunum Aero. They believe their airplane, and similar models, could bring regular air service back to all 4,000 of those small city airports at lower cost than any conventional rivals. The crucial number is cost per available seat mile, CASM. The average cost using today’s larger jets is 11 cents. Zunum is aiming for eight cents.
Strictly speaking, the current technology used by Zunum and others is not all-electric. They are, like most “electric” cars, hybrids. The engines powering the airplane have to be backed up by a small generator, burning conventional jet fuel that keeps the batteries charged. Nevertheless, in terms of fuel used, these engines are around 50 percent more efficient than jet engines – and they have no exhaust gases and are virtually silent.
What gives Zumum a level of credibility that goes beyond a lot of start-up hyperbole is that they are now backed with money and resources by Boeing and JetBlue Airways, each with its own interest – Boeing in the engine technology and JetBlue in the prospects for an entirely new market in domestic air travel. Zumum is aiming for a first flight in 2019 and first commercial flights by 2022.
Boeing is also clearly aware that their main global rival, Airbus, committed much sooner than they did to electrical power. Airbus has now retired the E-Fan that pioneered its program and they are aiming for something much larger, a hybrid that could carry up to 100 passengers, another sweet spot in regional routes now dominated by jets made by the Brazilian company Embraer.
Airbus just revealed details of the E-Fan X. It will be a test airplane, a modified version of a British regional jet, the BAe 146, on which one of the four conventional jet engines will be replaced by an electrical engine eight times more powerful than any present electrical power plant. Just how serious this project is to the development of electrical power in aviation is evident in the two partners joining Airbus: Rolls Royce who will provide the turbo-generator and the German colossus of all things electrical, Siemens, who will provide the engines.
Everyone is betting that battery technology will take another quantum leap in its ability to power flight in exactly the same way that, in the 1960s, the jet engine did with the introduction of the first generation of big turbo-fan engines on Boeing’s pioneering 747 jumbo. For the moment the Zunum model for the smaller commuter airplanes is based on batteries produced by Elon Musk’s Gigafactory in Nevada.
But all the smart corporate innovators across the world are aware that a very lucrative future market is zipping through its incubation period into something that by 2030 will be an unstoppable phenomenon. For example, Samsung Electronics in South Korea has recently announced a breakthrough in the design of large lithium-ion batteries, boosting power by 45 percent as well as taking far less time to recharge them.
The new small airport network will begin to emerge just as another revolution in mobility is due to begin operating. Uber is developing an air taxi service using a fleet of small electrically powered vehicles that combine the characteristics of a helicopter and airplane – they are named VTOLs (vertical takeoff and landing) and can climb and descend vertically but transition to low-altitude regular flight. Uber has set a target of a pilotless air taxi able to carry four passengers for up to 50 miles at a speed of around 150 mph.
VTOL technology has been accelerated by a number of start-ups but Airbus and Boeing are now taking it seriously with big investments: Boeing recently purchased Aurora Flight Sciences, a small Virginia company that has already developed more than 30 small pilotless vehicles.
Trials of the Uber service are set to begin in Dallas by 2020.That may well be too optimistic. The problems of safely managing a new strata of air traffic in urban skies where there are already commercial and corporate jets using city airports, as well as helicopters being used by emergency services and law enforcement, are formidable. It’s not enough simply to say because it can be done it will be. Air traffic management is already at the center of a dispute about whether it could be more efficient if taken out of the hands of the FAA and privatized. Legislators are being torn between lobbyists for competing interests and the issue seems to be paralyzed.
If anything is clear it is that innovations that don’t depend on raising the funds for huge built infrastructure to support them, as do, for example, new high-speed railroads, are likely to become reality much faster than those that depend on political vision and will. Because of that the future – in America, at least – looks skewed in favor of anything that flies.
Electrically powered aviation is also likely to have an intriguing social impact – it will turn back the clock to a lost golden age for many small towns and cities across America.
Long before any other country in the world began to build an airline network American vision and ingenuity brought the wonder of regular airline service to many cities at least 25 years before the nation even had an interstate highway system. Even in the worst years of the Great Depression passenger air traffic in America grew at the astonishing rate of 500,000 a year.
For a while after World War II local airlines almost felt like a mom and pop business. I remember flights on Mohawk Airlines in the late 1950s – for example, a winter trip from New York to Ithaca on a 1940s-vintage Douglas DC-3 that droned steadily and reassuringly like an airborne bus low over snow-covered hills and descended into a valley for a stately touch-down and then rolled up to a terminal that was little more than an adapted shack, the slipstream from the propellers sending a blast of snow at the gate before the engines died.
To me, new to the country, this was a Norman Rockwell fantasy come alive, these scattered rural idylls enjoying an ease of connection with each other, and the casual acceptance by people that the future had arrived, only to be snatched away again a generation later in the interests of corporate greed.
In the future when the electric airplanes roll up to the gate they will do so with a whisper. There will be no ticketing or airline staff at the airports. It will all be transacted via your smart phone without human contact. There won’t be air traffic controllers in a small tower, just a robot relaying commands from a distant center. You will be picked up and delivered to your destination by a driverless taxi also running on electric power. And, by around 2040, the airplane could be pilotless.
With any luck by then the rest of the infrastructure will have caught up and resemble that of a modern state and the con artist now in the White House will be a distant bad dream.