By Madhu Unnikrishnan
The electric aircraft market has gone from zero to 60 in just a matter of months, now that one of the world’s largest airframers has entered the race. Airbus said its Helicopters division is developing an electric take off and landing (eVTOL) air taxi that could take its first flight in 2023.
This is in stark contrast to Airbus archrival Boeing, which just last week committed only to consider alternative propulsion technologies in the near- to medium-term.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s Gol is committing to order up to 250 Vertical Aerospace eVTOLs through lessor Avolon and in partnership with Grupo Comparte to create an urban air taxi platform for country’s most congested cities. Gol’s proposed equity partner American Airlines also has a commitment for Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 aircraft.
Airbus unveiled the new concept aircraft, called the CityAirbus, today in Toulouse during the airframer’s first sustainability summit. The CityAirbus is a fixed-wing aircraft, equipped with a V-tail and eight electric propellers. The aircraft is capable of carrying four passengers up to 80 km (50 miles) at an airspeed of 120 kilometers per hour. The airframer stressed the CityAirbus’ green credentials extend to noise — a crucial consideration at European airports — and said it only registers 70 decibels at landing. By comparison, an A320 exceeds 100 decibels at landing, according to FAA data.
Airbus has conducted about 1,000 km of test flights with initial prototypes, and said a final prototype for the CityAirbus will be ready by 2023, with regulatory certification expected by 2025.
Although several companies, like Archer, Wisk, Vertical, and others, have made headlines with splashy orders for eVTOLs, none has the heft of Airbus, which along with Boeing effectively splits the commercial aircraft market. Airbus’ entry into the eVTOL race lends the sector credibility and arguably brings eVTOLs closer to reality. And a further point cannot be discounted: Unlike the other companies in the sector, Airbus has long and close relationships with the world’s aircraft regulators, which gives further credibility to its aggressive projected timeline for certification of the CityAirbus.
The problem of how to solve the “last mile,” or the segment of a trip from a major hub to a smaller city, has long bedeviled airlines. Connecting hub airports with smaller markets can be done more profitably — and more sustainably — with a small eVTOL, rather than a regional jet and an eVTOL arguably would be more sustainable than a car carrying a single passenger, even across a major metropolitan market, for example from Los Angeles International Airport to downtown Los Angeles.
“We are on a quest to co-create an entirely new market that sustainably integrates urban air mobility into the cities while addressing environmental and social concerns,” said Bruno Even, CEO of Airbus Helicopters. “Airbus is convinced that the real challenges are as much about urban integration, public acceptance, and automated air traffic management, as about vehicle technology and business models.”
And it is this last mile and concerns about urban mobility that informs Gol’s deal. Vertical specifically called out congestion in metropolitan São Paulo as an impetus for its deal for 250 VA-X4s. “Our eVTOLs will transform how we travel around high population density cities that are clogged with traffic by taking to the skies with zero emissions aircraft,” Vertical Commercial CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick said.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Avolon said that more than half of its 500-aircraft orderbook for VA-X4s has been spoken for. Grupo Comporte will provide the capital for the investment, Gol said.
Vertical’s VA-X4 tiltrotor features four electrically driven propellers and is capable of carrying four passengers more than 100 miles at a cruising speed in excess of 200 miles per hour. Gol expects Brazil’s regulators to approve the aircraft by 2024 with a forecast entry-into-service in Gol’s network by mid-2025.
Airlines around the world are scrambling into the electric aircraft race. United Airlines, American, Azul, and Virgin Atlantic are among the carriers that have made multi-billion dollar bets on the emerging technology.