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Electric aviation as an ecosystem business

The support for electric flying is vigorous. However, proper analytical discussions about the sustainable way to enhance electric flying as a business are hard to find.


Heini Noronen-Juhola

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 21.09.2022

As the price of oil is high and the need for environmentally sound aviation solutions is urgent, the discussion and lobbying for supporting electric flying is vigorous. The need for solutions is clear. However, proper analytical discussions about the sustainable way to enhance electric flying as a business are hard to find.

At this point, the electric aviation is rather immature as a business. We have seen photos of small electric aircrafts, that are airworthy, but are flying for private or test purposes. We have seen articles with visualizations of futuristic looking passenger aircrafts. Often these articles are describing how electric flying will change the future, but not how the business works in the aviation ecosystem at that point.

No specific technological standard is chosen

The big aircraft manufacturers with their own ecosystems are developing commercially sound electric aircrafts and the technologies supporting them. At the same time there is a large start-up society focusing on the same thing. So far there is no one specific solution or technology standard to which all the companies could put their efforts.

If the focus is on technology that does not gain enough interest among the aviation operators, the result may be losing a lot of money with failed investments. Or the chosen solution has no technical support or upgrade potential available.

Even if the result is a feasible electric aircraft, a payback plan has to be made for it. Operating costs like maintenance, crew, training or updates are the airline´s own costs, but regarding the charging costs, there might be some uncertainties. These services typically are provided by other stakeholders.

Charging ecosystems require large investments

Looking at airports as the provider of the charging infrastructure, there are similar challenges compared to the electric aircraft solutions. If an airport invests heavily in the electric aircraft charging stations, it might end up having a technically unfeasible solution, a solution that is fast outdated or some other way of working takes over. Making a decision about the technology at this early phase of the business cycle is very risky.

The charging stations also have to have a payback plan. Especially in cases of large scale commercial passenger traffic, investments to the infrastructure are big.

First of all, the whole electricity system at the airport has to have enough capacity to provide electricity to many electric aircrafts at the same time. The charging time has to be quick and efficient so that the turnaround time for an aircraft stays within limits. Secondly, the charging stations need to be able to serve many kinds of electric aircrafts based on different technical solutions.

With all this in consideration, how can the charging price be on a level where the charging of an aircraft is profitable for the airline and at the same time the airport gets some profit for their investments?

There is also a chance that the charging of an aircraft is provided by the airline itself or by a ground handling company. Currently, the normal aviation fueling business is regulated as a ground handling service. As charging an aircraft is also a sort of fueling, why not purchase the charging service from a company that is specialized in it and can make a proper business agreement with the airline?

Understanding the needs of the whole value chain is the only way forward

Before commercial electric flying on a large scale, there will most probably be some small passenger electric aircrafts flying to nearby cities or larger aircrafts who have retrofitted one or two of the original engines to electric engines and therefore created hybrid aircrafts.

For an airport, creating a charging infrastructure for this kind of limited need is not a good business case. Most likely we will see smaller mobile charging stations at the airports. Stations that can be operated by the charging companies as well. If the aircrafts have replaceable batteries, that task is clearly an airline maintenance task.

Before we can talk about electric aviation as a business, we have to understand the needs and business cases of each member of the value chain. The earlier we do this, the earlier we can really start preparing for electric aviation as normal business and a part of the transportation industry. This is the only way it really becomes sustainable.