Electric Currents

Electric Airliners Coming... But Who Will Fly Them?

Apr 06, 2017

Recently two startups, Wright Electric and Zunum Aero, along with Airbus have announced plans to develop all-electric short-haul commuter airliners, e-liners. But given the growing shortage of pilots, who will fly them?

Electric airliners are starting to look more real.

First there's Wright Electric, a Y-Combinator startup planning to develop an all-electric short-haul (under 300 miles) airliner.

Then Airbus announced they're shelving their plans to an E-Fan family to general aviation (private) aircraft, shifting attention and their considerable technical and financial resources to concentrate on its own larger, commercial airliner called the E-Fan X.

This week Zunum Aero rollout out of the stealth startup hangar to reveal its own short-haul family to e-liners, illustrated above.

The common denominator is all these proposed aircraft will be powered by electricity instead of the combustion of fossil fuels. Advances in technology from ever-smaller, more power-dense electric motors to comparable advances in battery chemistry are opening up the doors to the departure and arrival, possibly as early as the mid-20s, of electric airliners for trips under 500 miles. Such an advent would stabilize the fuel costs for operators, ushering in the age of truly "cheap" air travel, at least in theory.

There are also environmentally-driven regulatory issues airlines must begin to address since the carbon emissions of their aircraft account from 4-9% of all CO2 emissions globally. This also doesn't take into account the climate changing impact contrails and exhaust particulates and gases at high altitudes.

An airliner whose swappable battery packs can be recharged by renewable sources and emits few if any climate altering gases could be a win-win-win for the airlines, their customers, and the planet.

And we've not even begun to talk about developments in the way of autonomous, on demand electric air taxis that can take-off and land vertically like the recently announced Pop Up developed by Airbus collaboration with Italdesign.

Like towering thunderheads, there are, of course, any number of obstacles, both technologically and legally to be flown around or through before you step aboard an all-electric e-liner. However, maybe the most daunting -- at least in the short run -- isn't legal or technical, it's a human resources one. In less than five years, there simply won't be enough trained and qualified pilots to fly the current fleet of fossil fuel burners, much less the new wave of e-planes.

My brother is a senior manager for a major regional air carrier. If you fly on American, United or Delta, there's a good chance that short-haul jet or turboprop and crew are contracted from his company. We talked about the future of commercial aviation during a recent business trip here to Omaha. He explained that given the looming shortage of qualified airline pilots, soon to balloon to 15,000 empty cockpit seats, his sector of the industry is going to severely constrict as the men and women flying for regional airlines move up to the larger carriers to fill spaces left by the departure of thousands of aging professionals who hit 65, the mandatory retirement age (raised not that long ago by Congress from the original 60).

He fears that within five years, due to a shortage of pilots, his company may find itself simply out of business, not for lack of fuel or aircraft but people to fly them.

So, can't we just train a bunch more pilots? It's not that easy. In the wake of the crash of Colgan Air 3407 near Buffalo, NY in 2009, Congress tightened the requirements for commercial pilots, raising their flight hours from 400 to 1,500, explained my brother.

"Some kid who wants to become an airline pilot, will find he's in debt for $100,000," he lamented. And because commuter airlines are notorious for paying their pilots basically the equivalent of a minimum wage: $10.75 an hour, there's little incentive to go into debt that will take decades to pay off, if ever.

There are a couple possible paths around the storm. One is cutting the cost of flight training. That's what George Bye and the team at Aero Electric Aircraft Corporation are attempting to do with their Sun Flyer all-electric flight trainer.

The other option, one that passengers and the APA won't take too kindly to is the replacement of pilots with robots, essentially self-flying planes. What's happening on the ground with cars is likely to happen also in the air as seen in the Italdesign/Airbus Pop Up concept. In some respects, it's already happening with pilots increasingly depending on electronics to manage much of the flight. Basically, they handle radio traffic and oversee the systems, so much so that officials are starting to question how prepared pilots are to take control of the plane in an emergency. [CBS news report].

So, when Wright and Airbus and Zunum's electric airliners do take flight, will we have either the people or the technology ready to safely take them into the air and bring them safely back down? It's a question we need to answer starting right now.

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