Finnair has signed a letter of interest with pioneering Swedish sustainable aviation company Heart Aerospace and could acquire up to 20 of its 19-seater ES-19 electric aircraft for use on shortest haul routes.
The planes, which are currently in development, could be a part of the toolbox of new technologies in helping Finnair meet its plans to be carbon neutral by 2045.
Two years ago, Finnair joined the Nordic Network for Electric Aviation (NEA), which has seen governments, airlines and companies collaborate on exciting new projects to help develop sustainable ways to travel. The NEA has four key goals: standardising electric air infrastructure in the Nordic countries; developing business models for regional point-to-point connectivity; developing aircraft technology for Nordic weather conditions and creating a platform for European and global collaborations.
“We have worked closely with the NEA but getting this commitment from Finnair is really important,” says Anders Forslund, CEO and Founder of Heart Aerospace. “The big challenge of building an electric aircraft isn’t just in the technology, but also building the momentum to create a project like this and building it all the way.”
“When developing a completely new type of aircraft, you need partners, such as airlines and airports, to ensure that the whole ecosystem develops in line with the aircraft. Needs throughout the value chain are considered at an early phase,” says Anne Larilahti, Head of Sustainability at Finnair.
ENTIRELY NEW INFRASTRUCTURE
Initially, electric aircraft are likely to be used for shortest haul flights, helping to cut emissions as well as, potentially, invigorating local economies, says Forslund.
“If you bring electric aircraft to the table, we can fly small planes at unit economics that are similar to where the larger planes are today,” he says. “We can do this with planes that have zero emissions but also very low noise. We think this is not only going to replace some of the regional fleets that are out there today, but also create a new market and new types of connectivity.
“An electric aircraft is better the shorter the route you fly. The shorter you fly, the less you wear the batteries and the faster they can be recharged,” explains Forslund.
That, of course, means new infrastructure, potentially developing smaller airports to enable flights between smaller towns and cities in a shift away from the traditional hub airport model. New electric planes may also attract customers who are happy travelling light on planes that have little space for heavy luggage. It’s a major undertaking that will need years of work from multiple stakeholders.
“You need to really understand what is needed at the airports as well,” says Larilahti. “You can’t expand faster than the available infrastructure that supports these planes.”
Charging points will be required at every airport where an electric aircraft takes off and lands. Forslund explains that while Heart Aerospace, at a conservative estimate, thinks batteries for its ES-19 can be fully charged 1,000 times over their lifetime, planes will need to be topped up every time they land.
That’s where the NEA comes in. “It makes sense to have a standard [for charging],” says Larilahti. “How much easier is life now that we have USB?” pointing to the charging standard which has provided easy and convenient charging of smartphones and tablets.
NORDIC COUNTRIES AT FOREFRONT OF INNOVATION
Nordic countries working together to solve technological problems is nothing new. Both Forslund and Larilahti highlight NMT (Nordic Mobile Technology), a precursor to the GSM standard which helped revolutionize mobile communications across the globe.
“It was a Nordic collaboration project,” says Forslund. “That meant not only that we in the Nordics were among the first to have access to mobile phones, it also created some of the most successful telecoms companies in the world. The biggest impact of mobiles hasn’t been here, but in countries that didn’t have landlines, especially in the developing world. There’s a similarity here with electric aircraft.”
“We can pilot this,” adds Larilahti. “Our advantage is that there are countries that have their differences, but also countries that are very used to working together and creating common approaches.”
Larilahti points out that the cold weather in the Nordic region also means it’s the perfect place to pioneer electric aviation technology. “Our cold climate has an impact on batteries and operating a light plane. If we know how to do it here, it’s easier to do it elsewhere.”
“From a sustainability perspective you have something that is very palatable,” says Forslund. “If we grow this in the Nordic countries, then we can create a beneficial technology that we can then export to the rest of the world.”
BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR AVIATION
“In the near term, electric aircraft will not be the panacea to all sustainable aviation,” says Forslund. “But what it really does is remove the most expensive part of the aircraft, the jet engine and replaces it with a conceptually very simple electric motor. It’s cheap to make and maintain.”
Larilahti agrees that electric aviation alone won’t be enough to bring down emissions across the aviation sector. “If we look at the requirements of the Paris agreement, it’s not going to be enough just to electrify,” she says. “There’s no silver bullet but this is something that is extremely interesting.”
“We need a big toolbox,” she adds. “That means electric, hydrogen, biofuels and electro-fuels are all essential. If we don’t build everything in collaboration from the ground up, including infrastructure, it makes no sense. There’s no point if one thing is going fast and others are moving slowly.”
Forslund agrees. “If we remove emissions from aviation in the Nordics that’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. We need to create a model that’s sustainable and exportable to the rest of the world. And I think that’s where we share ambitions with Finnair.”