United Airlines and one of its regional carriers each intend to purchase up to 100 tiny electric planes for use on short-haul United flights.
United Airlines announced Tuesday morning that by the end of the decade, the 19-seat planes may be flying passengers up to 250 miles.
Heart Aerospace, a Swedish startup creating the plane, will get funding from United’s innovation fund and its partner Mesa Airlines. Both airlines have promised to buy 100 of the planes once they have been completed and match United’s requirements.
For a carrier like United, a plane with only 19 seats is too small, especially since the airline recently announced intentions to buy 270 planes in an effort to replace small regional jets with new, larger planes that passengers prefer.
However, electric planes are a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective method to manage short flights serving smaller areas, and United expects that advances in technology will someday allow for larger electric planes.
“We’re getting a toehold in it,” said United’s Vice President Corp Development and Investor Relations Michael Leskinen.
The electric planes should also be less expensive to run than standard 19-seat jets, Mesa claimed in a news release, which might help offer new or increased air service to tiny cities where such flights are currently prohibitively expensive.
Mesa used to have a significant fleet of 19-seat jets, but during the last 30 years, “practically all 19 seat aircraft have been withdrawn from commercial service” because they were too expensive, according to Mesa.
United and Mesa also stated that the electric planes would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As consumers became more concerned about the environmental impact of flying, the airline industry set a target of cutting emissions in half by 2050, while United and the UK aviation industry stated that they intend to reduce net emissions to zero by that date.
Batteries cannot store enough energy to power electric planes across the Atlantic, which would necessitate a “quantum leap” in technology, according to Leskinen. Still, Heart Aerospace founder and CEO Anders Forslund said the technology works well for shorter trips on smaller planes.
“People didn’t stop flying 19-seaters because they couldn’t fly far enough, they couldn’t pay for the maintenance of turboprop jet motors on small planes,” Forslund said
United’s latest investment is on new planes that are still years away from being ready to fly passengers but are supposed to emit fewer pollutants than existing jets.
United announced last month that it will purchase 15 Boom Supersonic jets, which are designed to travel twice as fast as current aircraft while utilizing sustainable aviation fuel. United estimates that the planes will be able to carry passengers by 2029.
The Heart Aerospace planes are bigger and might be used on regional routes like O’Hare International Airport to Purdue University Airport or San Francisco International Airport to Modesto City-County Airport. United said the planes might start flying as early as 2026.
The size of United’s investment was not disclosed. Forslund stated that the Heart Aerospace raised a total of $35 million in a round of fundraising that included United, Mesa, and other investors.