An United Airlines seen at LaGuardia International Airport in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
United Airlines is aiming to have electric aircraft flying regional routes by the end of the decade, part of the company’s goal to fully reduce its carbon footprint to net zero by 2050.
Those battery-powered aircraft are being developed by Swedish start-up Heart Aerospace, from which United placed an order for 100 planes in July 2021. United also invested an undisclosed amount in the company through its venture funding arm at the time of the deal.
United has pushed heavily into a variety of lower-emission forms of aviation, not only announcing plans to buy electric air taxis and vertical aircraft, as well as hydrogen-electric engines but also investing in the companies behind the burgeoning technologies.
“We cannot continue doing and operating our business the way we do; it is imperative that we change it, and the way we’re going to change it is through investing in technology,” Mike Leskinen, United Airlines Ventures president, said in an interview as part of CNBC’s ESG Impact virtual conference on Thursday.
“Existing technology is going to either cause us to fly less, which is an unacceptable alternative, or continue with a carbon footprint, which we believe is equally unacceptable,” Leskinen said.
Heart Aerospace, which recently redesigned what will be its first electric aircraft which is now called the ES-30, plans to have the planes enter service in 2028, said Anders Forslund, the company’s CEO and founder.
The 30-passenger planes will be driven by electric motors with battery-derived energy, allowing the planes to have a fully electric range of 200 kilometers (124 miles). The planes will also include a reserve-hybrid engine powered by sustainable aviation fuel, allowing it to have an extended range of up to 400 kilometers with a full flight.
Heart Aerospace, which has also taken purchase orders from Air Canada, Mesa Air Group and Icelandair, has received investments from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and EQT Ventures.
Leskinen said those short routes are United’s initial view for how the technology will be utilized, with Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Denver International Airport being viewed as key markets for the first batch of aircraft.
“Initially we want to fly on routes that are 200 miles or less,” he said. “But as that energy density increases, that same aircraft will have a range of 250 miles, 300 miles, which is going to give us a lot more utility here connecting our hubs.”
The planes will be able to recharge in less than 30 minutes, Forslund said, potentially reopening regional routes that are underserved by modern jet aircraft.
United could potentially offer those shorter routes not only with greater frequency but at a lower cost, Leskinen said.
“As we adopt electric aircraft, I think the cost for a 30-seat aircraft, 50-seat aircraft as the industry evolves is going to be lower cost than a traditional aircraft,” he said. For small cities, this means they are “going to get either service that they didn’t have before or greater frequency of service,” he added.