Ravn Alaska said it will buy 50 electric planes from the California-based company Airflow when they come onto the market. Airflow’s planes will use batteries instead of gas to power their engines.
But first, the company has to finalize its aircraft design. Airflow CEO Marc Ausman said he hopes to have Airflow’s planes ready for service by 2025.
“My feeling is, if we can build an aircraft that’s successful in Alaska, it can be successful anywhere in the world,” he said.
Airflow’s planes are electric versions of short takeoff and landing aircrafts ― the kind of small planes you might see private pilots flying around Alaska.
Ausman said they will be able to fit nine passengers each. They’re not meant to replace Ravn’s existing airplanes, which are larger, Dash-8 planes. Ravn offers flight service to Kenai and 12 other airports around Alaska.
Instead, Ausman said these planes are designed for smaller airports and towns.
That’s partly because electric aircraft technology is more scalable. The internal combustion engines that planes currently use don’t scale down to smaller aircraft well, Ausman said.
“Whereas electric motors scale down very nicely,” he said. “So we can put small electric motors, small propellers, all around the aircraft to accomplish certain things.”
Ausman said the planes will need half the length of a typical runway to take off, which could make them optimal for more rugged situations.
The batteries in Airflow’s planes are not unlike electric vehicle batteries. But Ausman said their battery packs are designed differently to fortify them even more against fires.
Early electric planes will have ranges of 100 miles. Some of Airflow’s planes will be hybrids, able to fly for 500 miles.
“Sort of think of it as a Prius, as a first step to an all-electric car,” Ausman said.
Ravn CEO Rob McKinney said Airflow approached Ravn a few months ago to talk about their plan. He said he was excited to sign on, in part because the smaller planes could allow Ravn to serve new destinations in Alaska.
“I’ve been a big supporter of electric aviation for over a decade now,” he said. “I just truly believe that that is the future of smaller aircrafts, especially in the beginning.”
He also said the electric planes could also save Ravn money. It takes a lot of gas to turn combustion engines on and off. That can add up for short flights.
The technology still has a ways to go. And Airflow isn’t the only company developing electric plane technology, or signing agreements with airlines. American Airlines just said it plans to buy electric aircraft from UK-based Vertical Aerospace.
Ausman said Airflow has signed agreements with other flight companies that operate in Alaska, too, though he wouldn’t say which ones.
Airflow is currently working on simulations and smaller model aircrafts. The next step is to build a proof of concept from an existing aircraft, Ausman said.
When the aircraft are ready, Ravn will get them piecemeal, not all at once. McKinney envisions using the planes as a launching pad for pilots’ careers.
“It’s part of our larger scheme, whereas there’s going to be a nationwide pilot shortage,” McKinney said. “So it’s part of our plan to trade our own flow of pilots into our Dash-8 fleet by having a fleet of smaller aircraft as a launching point for pilot careers.”
At the same time, Ausman said the battery technology will be getting better and cheaper. That, he said, could make plane tickets more affordable in the long run.