Pre-pandemic a major focus for airlines was investing in sustainable aviation (probably due to social pressure). This has come in the form of carbon offsetting flights, as well as committing to investing in more sustainable forms of aviation.

Well, United Airlines has just announced its first plans to operate electric planes, though it’s not what you’d think, and the headline almost reads like it could be an April Fools’ joke.In this post:

United Airlines to invest in Archer, buy 200 electric air taxis

United Airlines has announced plans to work with air mobility company Archer as part of a broader effort to invest in emerging technologies that decarbonize air travel.

Rather than relying on traditional combustion engines, Archer’s electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft are designed to use electric motors, and have the potential for future use as “air taxis” in urban markets.

With current technology, Archer aircraft are designed to travel distances of up to 60 miles, at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour. The plan is for future models to travel faster and further. Archer’s plan is to launch between Hollywood and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and it’s estimated that it could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 47% per passenger.

Under United’s agreement with Archer:

  • United will contribute its expertise in airspace management to assist Archer with the development of battery powered, short haul aircraft
  • Once the aircraft are in operation and have met United’s operating and business requirements, United will acquire a fleet of up to 200 of these electric aircraft that would operate for Mesa Airlines
  • These planes would be intended to give customers a “quick, economical, and low carbon way to get to United’s hub airports and commute in dense urban environments within the next five years”

United Airlines claims that this investment in Archer will improve the customer experience and earn a strong financial return. As United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby describes this investment:

“Part of how United will combat global warming is by embracing emerging technologies that decarbonize air travel . By working with Archer, United is showing the aviation industry that now is the time to embrace cleaner, more efficient modes of transportation. With the right technology, we can curb the impact aircraft have on the planet, but we have to identify the next generation of companies who will make this a reality early and find ways to help them get off the ground. Archer’s eVTOL design, manufacturing model and engineering expertise has the clear potential to change how people commute within major metropolitan cities all over the world.”

I guess United’s investment in Archer is cool, but…

I have a few different thoughts here, aside from this generally being a nifty concept.

First of all, this seems like an unusual extension for an airline investing in sustainable aviation. These aren’t replacements for jets, but rather are replacements for cars and helicopters. United and Mesa have placed an order for these planes, so will United Express start operating transportation from cities to airports? If so, will there be first class, what will elite benefits look like, and how many miles will need to be redeemed for a flight? 😉

Next, I’m not sure I actually fully buy that this is objectively good for the environment. Sure, emissions here are lower than in a helicopter, so if that’s the alternative I suppose that’s true. However:

  • The claim is that CO2 emissions are lower than in cars, but cars are increasingly becoming electric, so it’s not really fair to compare today’s gas cars to an air taxi that will only operate several years down the road, when more cars will be electric as well
  • The emissions statistic doesn’t factor in that people will have to get to the air taxi departure points, and that presumably the reduction in emissions are based on these taxis always flying full, which is unlikely to be the case
  • At $5 million per frame plus operating costs, seats won’t be particularly cheap, not to mention there will be limits to how many of these can operate at any point; in other words, these won’t fully replace cars and somehow become the way that everyone gets to airports

So yeah, this is definitely an improvement in every way compared to helicopters, but helicopters aren’t how most people get to airports.

That makes me believe that United’s primary motivation here is that it thinks Archer is a good financial investment. Archer plans to go public, and United has invested some undisclosed amount in the company. While we don’t know how much cash United is investing right now (presumably a lot of money will be paid down the road), aren’t the optics of United spending money on this while also taking billions in taxpayer support kind of bad?

Bottom line

United Airlines is investing in Archer, and has placed an order for 200 electric air taxis. While these seem like great alternatives to helicopters, I can’t help but find everything else about this a bit strange.

Is United now trying to compete with Uber and Blade? Is this actually at all about the environment, because if this is about reducing emissions on the way to airports, it seems like electric cars would be more useful and accessible? And is this really the time for an airline to be promoting that it’s investing $1 billion in something it believes will “earn a strong financial return,” as it has just taken billions of dollars in taxpayer funds?