Electric Aviation Taking Off


Your next flight could be electric—in a good way

When people take an airline flight, “electric” is not a term that seems all that desirable. For most people, that would seem to suggest something happening in the skies that was considerably different from the kind of get on, snooze, get off experience they’d like to have in getting from A to B. But for some passengers taking a flight in the United States, there will soon be the possibility of using that word in a much more positive way, because a Massachusetts-based airline just bought the world’s first commercial electric passenger plane.

At the Paris Air Show earlier this month, deals were made for hundreds of jet liners by dozens of commercial airlines from around the globe. But it was a single aircraft purchased by regional carrier Cape Air that really stole the show. The small carrier bought a rather small plane—one that carries just nine passengers for no more than 650 miles—a far cry from the kind of large long-range craft that made up the bulk of the sales. But this plane, from new Israeli aircraft manufacturer Eviation, is a glimpse of a radical change in aviation.

This first order for the $4 million plane called Alice is the first time any airline has purchased an electric plane intended for regular passenger service. And it didn’t order just one, but “double digit” numbers of the plane — though exactly how many hasn’t been revealed. Cape Air currently has about 92 aircraft in service, so the order for a dozen or more Alices (Alici? Alicia?) would be either a major expansion of its service or a replacement of a significant part of its existing gas-powered craft.

Compared to most small propeller-driven aircraft used by regional providers, the Alice makes an attractive prospect. The pressurized cabin means the craft can cruise comfortably at higher altitudes; a cruising speed of 285 mph and a top speed closer to 400 make short work of the kind of routes many of its aircraft fly. And the Alice has no issue with landing at small regional airports. To obtain this performance, the Alice packs a 900 kWh lithium-ion battery pack—equivalent in power to about 18 standard Tesla Model 3s.

It’s going to be some time before battery technology permits the kind of range and speed necessary to replace long-range jets. However, those taking a flight inside the U.S. may soon get an opportunity to try out something genuinely new.

Quick personal note: I recently took a Cape Air flight back into St. Louis from Owensboro, KY. The day happened to be extremely stormy, and while the pilot did a masterful job steering around and between towering thunderheads, it would have been great to have the Alice’s abilities to make that flight electric not in the sense of watching electricity streak past the windows. Still, a tip of the hat to that pilot, who brought us in safely and on time, even if it took flying a not at all straight-line route to make it happen.