- Electric hybrids—an overlooked market?
- FAA’s eVTOL regulatory framework takes shape
- New propaganda from Federal Air Marshals
- J.D. Power annual airport ratings
- A possible breakthrough in sustainable aviation fuel
- Does aviation face a “climate crisis”?
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
I continue to puzzle over the hype about tiny electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) as the coming revolution in aviation. To be sure, the idea is cool, and it increasingly appears to be technically feasible. All-electric means no vehicle emissions (despite the carbon footprint of battery production and disposal). And eVTOLs seem likely to be far quieter than helicopters, whose market they will likely challenge.
But as I’ve written previously in this newsletter, we have yet to see a business model that justifies the mass production of four-passenger commercial air vehicles just because the technology works. Consider these shortcomings—Four passengers mean very few fares, even at 100% load factor, from which to recover capital and operating costs. Short range, in most cases, is also a serious limitation for cost recovery (10-mile trips versus 300-mile trips). And insisting on vertical take-off and landing uses a huge amount of energy that might be better used for much greater range.
These considerations lead me to think there’s likely more of a market niche in larger aircraft (19 passengers and up) with longer range (at least several hundred miles) to fill a very real emerging need: short/medium-haul regional air service. While today’s batteries cannot meet those requirements, a hybrid conventional take-off/landing concept appears to be quite feasible. Here are brief profiles of companies pursuing such aircraft.
Ampaire is a start-up that last month flew a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan that it converted to hybrid-electric propulsion. The company hopes to get Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for its Eco Caravan in 2024. Ampaire Chief Executive Officer Kevin Noertker pointed out to Aviation Week’s Graham Warwick that most airports don’t have electric charging infrastructure and won’t have it for some time. So hybrid electric is the way to begin the decarbonization of aviation. He says the hybrid design (diesel plus battery/motor) reduces fuel consumption and emissions by 50%-70%. And the maximum range of the aircraft is beyond 1,000 nm.
Making its first flight in September was the all-electric Alice prototype developed by startup company Eviation. It has been designed for low drag and is powered by two Magni650 electric propulsion units driving two aft-mounted propellors. It is can carry nine passengers and has a range of 440 nautical miles. That’s dramatically higher than any of the four-passenger eVTOLs, suggesting the very large difference in capacity and range enabled by foregoing vertical takeoff and landing. Eviation is aiming for 2024 certification. Like Ampaire’s plane, it can use normal aircraft certification thanks to not employing powered vertical lift.
Nine passengers are better than four, but for short/medium regional service—the niche that very definitely needs filling—30 passengers would be far more important. This brings me to the Swedish startup Heart Aerospace. Its clean-sheet-design ES-30 electric aircraft is configured for 30 passengers. With its 5.5 metric ton battery pack, its range is 200 kilometers (124 miles). But with the addition of a range-extender consisting of two turbogenerators, it can fly 248 miles with 30 passengers or 497 miles with 25 passengers. Unlike smaller hybrids, the ES-30 is pressurized and has three-abreast seating, a galley and lavatory, and overhead bins. Heart has had serious discussions with United and Mesa, both of which have invested in it, as have Air Canada and Saab.
At least three U.S. airlines have invested in hydrogen-electric developer ZeroAvia: Alaska, American, and United. ZeroAvia is developing hydrogen fuel cell powertrains to replace the conventional engines of turboprop and regional jet aircraft in the 50 to 80-passenger range. The company plans test-flying the system on aircraft such as the Dornier Do 228, Cessna Caravan, and DeHavilland Twin Otter. It is aiming for certification by the late 2020s. At this point, hydrogen fuel cells are a technically riskier proposition than hybrid-electric aircraft.
Were I wealthy enough to be an angel investor, I’d be far more disposed to put my money into companies developing hybrid electric aircraft serving regional airline markets than into eVTOLs serving yet-to-be-invented markets.
Emerging electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) developers have set ambitious deployment timelines, such as Joby Aviation’s target service launch in 2024. But as with other new entrants, FAA’s rules governing conventional aviation need to be modernized for these novel aircraft types to be integrated into the National Airspace System. While full airspace integration will likely take many years, FAA has recently begun the process that may allow it to meet the eVTOL industry’s aggressive timelines.
Developers of eVTOL aircraft promise to combine the versatility of helicopters with affordability and lower noise profiles, which would allow them to compete with conventional surface transportation options. Joby, a leading developer in the eVTOL and advanced air mobility (AAM) industries, has conducted acoustic flight testing with NASA. A May 2022 NASA study found that Joby’s eVTOL prototype emitted noise profiles during takeoff, cruising, and landing far below today’s acceptable cityscape sounds, and at cruising would likely be imperceptible against urban background noise. As for affordability, Joby and competitor Wisk Aero are targeting a ticket price of $3 per passenger-mile, which would put eVTOL AAM service within striking distance of Uber’s pricing for conventional surface street ride-hailing and with much shorter trip times.
That said, there are numerous technical and business challenges that must be addressed before an optimistic AAM scenario can become reality. And aside from these, a regulatory and air traffic management framework must exist to allow for eVTOL deployment at scale, accounting for both the airworthiness of the aircraft and business operations.
The first step is aircraft airworthiness certification. Last month, FAA issued a notice of proposed airworthiness criteria for Joby’s JAS4-1 eVTOL aircraft. The JAS4-1 would be operated with a single pilot onboard under visual flight rules. If FAA’s proposal is finalized quickly, it may enable Joby and others to meet their near-term deployment targets. While some in the industry had previously raised concerns about FAA’s decision to base initial eVTOL airworthiness certification on Part 21.17(b) Special Class rules that do not readily comport with international standards, past skeptics seem to have been won over by FAA’s approach of building on these early type-specific eVTOL airworthiness criteria toward generally applicable Part 23 Normal Category certification standards.
Following airworthiness certification, FAA must separately certify eVTOL operations. One of the biggest regulatory hurdles for eVTOL developers hoping to operate commercial AAM services was FAA’s existing Part 135 air carrier and operator regulations, which did not allow for the certification of powered-lift operations like those provided by eVTOL aircraft. Fortunately, FAA earlier this month published a notice of proposed rulemaking to update Part 135 air carrier definitions to explicitly include powered-lift operations. If finalized, assuming technical and business challenges are met, Joby and others may be able to achieve their mid- to late-decade commercial operations targets.
With an FAA reauthorization due by the end of Sept. 2023, Congress has indicated that it plans to address eVTOL and AAM, perhaps through a dedicated “new entrants” title to the law. To date, Congress has primarily focused on interagency coordination and infrastructure needs, such as AAM vertiports, but it may choose to examine more granular airworthiness and operations certification issues.
With respect to the congressional direction of eVTOL and AAM airworthiness and operations certification, it is important to understand that legislators possess few tools to speed up internal FAA integration efforts. In addition, due to strained staff capacity on key congressional authorizing committees and the limited technical backgrounds of those overworked staffers, this work would likely be farmed out to external stakeholders and experts. What could result from these potential political deliberations would be anyone’s guess.
The uncertainty inherent in this approach to policymaking should give AAM advocates pause as they ramp up their education and lobbying efforts to Congress ahead of FAA reauthorization. While AAM enthusiasts may be frustrated by the often-slow pace of FAA decision-making, key regulatory decisions affecting developers may be better coming from expert regulators at FAA rather than congressional sausage-making. Even those most skeptical of FAA’s current approach to AAM should appreciate that it is often better to work with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
American Military News reported that a handful of federal air marshals (FAMs) are threatening to resign if they are ordered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be sent to the country’s southern border to back up Border Patrol agents. The publication cited an article in the Washington Examiner dating an initial DHS request to FAMs to volunteer for border duty in mid-2021. Reuters reported that fewer than 150 had volunteered and that DHS has begun assigning federal air marshals to border duty.
And this led to a clever propaganda ploy by the Air Marshal National Council. After warning DHS and FAMs Director Tirrell Stevenson that FAMs will refuse orders for border duty, the organization’s public message is that this diversion of FAMs means that 99% of U.S. airline flights would be unguarded. That scary-sounding message led to Fox News and several House Republicans raising alarms about “creating a massive risk to public safety.” That rhetoric ignores the fact that the vast majority of U.S. flights do not have federal air marshals on board—a maximum of 8% ever do. It also ignores the fact that the only known country that has a comparable program of armed security officers on airline flights is Israel, which has faced far more serious threats to aviation over many decades. And it also ignores the fact that no FAM has ever interdicted a would-be terrorist on an actual airline flight.
And that’s just for starters. As I most recently reported in the story on secondary cockpit barriers (Sept. 2022 issue), the best analysis of onboard airliner security measures finds the cost of U.S. air marshals to be vastly more than any realistic estimates of their benefit to aviation security. In their 2018 book Are We Safe Enough? Mark Stewart and John Mueller calculated the benefit/cost ratio of the FAMs program to be 0.03—meaning that each dollar spent on FAMs yields only three cents worth of benefits. By contrast, adding a secondary barrier to protect the cockpit when the armored door has to be opened has a benefit/cost ratio of 41. One reason for this huge difference is that a secondary barrier is a modest one-time cost, while the FAM program consumes about $1 billion of the Transportation Security Administration’s budget every year. It also costs the airlines the loss of revenue from two front-cabin seats for each flight that has FAMs aboard.
Fox News and the Washington Examiner should apologize for misinforming viewers and readers by accepting at face value the federal air marshals’ highly misleading propaganda.
Once again, analytical firm J.D. Power has released its annual ranking of North American airports. The company assigns scores for six aspects of each airport: terminal facilities, airport arrival and departure, baggage claim, security check, and food/beverage/retail offerings. With a maximum of 1,000 points, the highest score among the “mega” airports was 800 points—earned by Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). In the “large” airport category, the top scorer was Tampa International Airport (TPA) at 846 points. And in the “medium” airport category, the winner was Indianapolis International Airport (IND) with 842 points.
As the above scores suggest, large airports tended to score higher than mega airports, which might suggest some dis-economies of scale. It’s also interesting to see how airports that scored below the average score in each category did. In the mega category, the average for the lower half was 755, compared with an average of 786 for the eight above-average mega airports. The lowest of the below-average mega airports was—you guessed it—Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) at just 719 points.
In the large airport category, the average score was 804, compared with 762 for those in the bottom portion of this category. The lowest-ranked large airport was Philadelphia International (PHL) at just 729 points.
A well-known airport 2008 economic productivity study in the Journal of Urban Economics analyzed a global set of 109 airports. It found that the most-productive airports were those with partial or total control by private investors, with the second-best set-up being airports operated by airport authorities. After that came airports operated by city, county, or state/province governments—and bringing up the rear were airports operated by multi-purpose port authorities.
With the airports divided into groups this way, mega airports run by airport authorities averaged 801 points in the JD Power rankings, airports run by government departments averaged 797 points, with airports run by port authorities in last place at 790. For the large airports, the average scores were 769 points for airport authorities, 759 for government departments, and 755 for port authorities. Though both distributions are consistent with the journal article’s findings, the differences are small and likely not statistically significant. Unfortunately, there are no privatized U.S. mega, large, or medium airports for comparative scoring.
One of the problems with projections being made by global climate models is that—of necessity—they assume existing technology. If major breakthroughs in energy sources or propulsion technology emerge 10 years from now, that’s not possible to include in today’s models’ scenarios.
One potential breakthrough in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was announced on Nov. 29 by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), whose news release was headlined, “WPI Researchers Create Method for Making Net-Zero Aviation Fuel,” and was discussed in an Aviation Daily article on Dec. 6.
The research by WPI researchers Jagan Jayachandran and Adam Powell is a potential aircraft fuel composed of magnesium hydride mixed with conventional hydrocarbon fuel. The products of combustion would be magnesium oxide nanoparticles, water vapor, and (yes) CO2, but that’s not the end of the story. The nanoparticles react with CO2 and water in the exhaust plume to produce magnesium bicarbonate, thereby removing CO2 from the exhaust. An important finding is that the new fuel would be denser than conventional jet fuel, potentially leading to 8% longer range compared with today’s fuel, other things equal. Even getting the same range would be a huge improvement over liquid ammonia since it would provide 2.5 times its range, or liquid hydrogen (providing 3.5 times its range).
To be sure, this research was based on modeling and computational analysis; no such fuel has been produced, let alone tested in a jet engine. In an email Powell acknowledged that there are “8-10 potential show-stoppers, as described at the end of the paper.” He also noted that the potential 8% range increase could be eaten up by the need for stronger, heavier fuel tanks and structural modifications to carry the heavier fuel. But stronger tanks would also be needed for liquid hydrogen.
The WPI news release noted that Jayachandra and Powell plan physical experiments with samples of the fuel. And it quoted Powell as saying, “We hope our work, which opens up a new category of sustainable aviation fuel, will spark the imagination of other researchers.”
Over the past few years, many media and government officials worldwide have switched from talking and writing about climate change and global warming to a “climate crisis” or “climate emergency.” There is no scientific question that average temperatures are increasing and sea levels are rising. But some climate-focused organizations seem to have captured enough media attention to lead large parts of U.S. and European media to adopt the more apocalyptic terminology. If we really had only 10 years or 20 years to radically reduce CO2 emissions or ‘the earth would burn’ and island nations would be submerged, drastic measures would be called for. But that is not what reputable scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are telling us.
Most reporting on the sixth (most recent) IPCC report, released this year, focused on the worst-case climate scenario, known as RCP8.5. Among other unrealistic assumptions, this scenario assumes a six-fold rise in global per-capita coal consumption by 2100, which is grossly unrealistic. My Reason colleague, science correspondent Ron Bailey, published a useful overview of this problem back in May. Bailey recounts a New York Times article on a study using “too hot” climate models that predicted mass extinctions of marine life from climate warming, comparable to the Permian age extinction 250 million years ago. Bailey rightly concluded, “Exaggerating the real problem of man-made climate change is not helpful for guiding the public and policymakers in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to rising global temperatures.”
Bailey also cited a commentary in the scientific journal Nature explaining that many of the “hot” climate models that project extreme temperatures by century’s end “do a poor job of reproducing historical temperatures over time.” Recognizing this problem, the 2022 IPCC report ceased its previous policy of averaging the results of a large set of models in favor of giving greater weight to models that were more consistent with historical climate and temperature trends. The five authors are all climate scientists.
This is an aviation policy newsletter, not a climate science newsletter. I’m including this article because it appears that a some aviation leaders are potentially being misled, not by what IPCC’s 2022 report actually says but by worst-case scenarios reported out of context by major media and amplified by climate-action interest groups.
In a previous newsletter article on this topic (Sept. 2021), I recommended a book by a distinguished climate scientist who served as Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy in the Obama administration—Steven E. Koonin. In his book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters, Koonin explains climate modeling and urges policymakers to distinguish among climate scenarios and, in particular, to be skeptical of RCP8.5. I’m happy to recommend it once again to aviation thought leaders and policymakers.
Vinci Invests in Mexican Airports
Vinci Airports has invested $1.17 billion to acquire 30% of Mexican airport operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Centro Norte (OMA). The company operates 13 Mexican airports, including Acapulco, Chihuahua, Ciudad Juarez, Durango, Mazatlan, Tampico, and Zacatecas. Prior to this acquisition, Vinci was the world’s sixth-largest airport group, based on 2020 revenue. Earlier this year, it won a concession for the seven airports in the Cape Verde islands, bringing its total to 70 airports. Adding the OMA airports, that total is now 83.
Partial Sale of Auckland Airport Proposed
The mayor of Auckland has proposed selling the city government’s 18% stake in Auckland International Airport, Inframation News reported on Dec. 2. Based on recent share prices on the New Zealand and Auckland stock exchanges, the sale would yield about NZ$2 billion (US $1.28 billion). While Australia is known for infrastructure asset recycling of this sort, sale of the airport stake would appear to be a first for New Zealand. The country’s three largest airports, then owned by the national government, were privatized via initial public offerings in 1998. Individual investors own 53% of Auckland International’s shares, with institutional investors owning the rest.
Steps Toward Single European Sky
Eurocontrol, which coordinates upper airspace in Europe (and collects ATC fees from airspace users on behalf of individual ANSPs) last month signed an agreement with DFS, Germany’s ANSP, under which Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Center (MUAC) and DFS’s Karlsruhe Upper Area Control Center will harmonize their processes, procedures, and technology. The new system will use a common “virtual infrastructure” serving both centers and potentially extendable to other control centers. Separately, the FABEC group of ANSPs has added Swiss airspace to its upper-airspace free-route airspace agreement.
U.S. and Overseas Airlines Ask for More Time on 5G Fixes
Airlines for America, GAMA, Boeing, and others submitted a letter to FAA, DOT, the Commerce Dept. and other agencies stating that altimeter manufacturers and some airlines will be unable to meet the year-end deadline to re-equip with altimeters resistant to interference from 5G antennas near airports. On behalf of non-US airlines, IATA sent its own letter to FAA making similar points and noting that one of the replacement radar altimeters has not yet been certified by FAA. And in November, FAA asked the Federal Communications Commission to require 19 other wireless providers to agree to the same mitigation measures that AT&T and Verizon have been implementing this year.
Miami-Dade Voters Approve Defense of Miami International Airport
Two ballot measures approved by voters on Nov. 8 were aimed at preventing the state government from taking over Miami International Airport and Port Miami, in violation of the county’s home rule charter. Both measures passed: a provision requiring county commission members to support home rule status and a requirement that any proposed state takeover must be approved by a county referendum. One way to preserve county ownership would be a long-term public-private partnership lease, in which the county would remain owner and regulator but would no longer be able to micromanage the airport. A 2021 Reason Foundation policy study estimated that the net proceeds (after bond payoffs) from a public-private partnership lease of Miami International Airport would be $2.6 billion.
Colombia Planning Long-term P3 for El Dorado International
In response to an unsolicited proposal from Odinsa and Pavimentos Colombia, the National Infrastructure Agency expects next year to put out a request for proposals for a design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) P3 concession to make major improvements to El Dorado International, the country’s largest airport, in Bogota, the capital city. Under the country’s P3 law, the first step will be a feasibility study by outside consultants.
Should EU Member Governments Self-Regulate their ANSPs?
Europe has three times as many high-altitude air traffic control centers as the United States, serving one-third less annual traffic. But elected officials in each country, under pressure from controllers’ unions, have balked at consolidating facilities and streamlining airspace. Early this month, airline trade groups the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airlines for Europe called for European air navigation service provider (ANSP) performance to be reviewed by an independent regulator, as called for in 2020 by the European Commission. Both organizations are stressing the need to reduce aviation emissions in calling for streamlined, more-efficient airspace.
O’Hare’s $12 Billion Terminal Upgrades Pass Environmental Review
The core of the latest phase in Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s transformation will take down aging Terminal 2 and replace it with a huge new Global Terminal. The environmental review, begun in 2018, resulted in a FONSI—a finding of no significant impact. That stemmed from the plan’s projected reduction of taxi times, which will reduce emissions. Besides replacing T2, the plan also calls for a $1.3 billion renovation of Terminal 5, increasing its gate capacity by 25%. O’Hare ranked well below average in the 2022 J.D. Power study of US airports, scoring better than only one in its category, Newark. While the decade-long program of O’Hare runway expansion is finished, that and the terminal expansion will obviously facilitate more flights. In Europe, that would not be assessed as “no significant impact.” Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
Brazil Airport Privatizations Put on Hold
The recently elected government of former president Lula da Silva has put on hold a series of previously announced infrastructure privatizations and P3s. Both the airports of Galeao and Santos Dumont were due to be privatized by the end of this year, as was a projected $1.2 billion auction of Porto de Santos, the country’s largest port.
U.S.-Canada AAM Corridor Announced
The Northeast Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR) and Canadian vertiport company VPorts announced on Nov. 29 an agreement to establish a corridor for electric aircraft between Syracuse (NY) Hancock International Airport and Montreal’s Mirabel Airport. VPorts had previously announced plans for a network of vertiports in Quebec, including both Mirabel and Saint-Hubert airports. NUAIR runs an FAA-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems at the airport in Rome, New York and has worked with NASA on vertiport automation systems.
Skyports and Corporacion America Airports Collaboration
Latin America’s largest airport company, CAAP, has formed a joint venture with Skyports Infrastructure to develop vertiports at some of CAAP’s 53 airport sites. The first step under their memorandum of understanding is to review those airport sites to select the best candidates for vertiports.
NATS Deploys Radar Not Fooled by Wind Turbines
NATS, the United Kingdom’s ANSP, has implemented a new primary surveillance radar that is not flummoxed by huge wind turbines. Conventional radars show a wind turbine as “clutter” that can hide or be mistaken for an aircraft. The new radar installed at Lowther Hill can filter this clutter to the point where interference with air traffic surveillance is no longer a problem. The installation of this new radar will clear the way for multiple planned wind farm projects, projected to produce 2.5 gigawatts of electricity.
“This summer we welcomed the ICAO Council’s formal condemnation of Russia for its numerous violations of international aviation rules. These include violating the sovereign airspace of Ukraine, as well as multiple technical requirements, which have had a significant impact on aviation safety in Russia. This includes attempts to circumvent EU sanctions by illegally double-registering aircraft in Russia that have been stolen from leasing companies and operating aircraft on international routes without a valid safety certificate. This resulted in ICAO declaring a “Significant Safety Concern” against Russia. ICAO only does this in the most exceptional circumstances, and in the gravest of cases involving aviation safety. In essence, ICAO declared that Russian aviation is unsafe, also highlighting a lack of oversight. The global aviation community has given a clear signal that these actions cannot be without consequences. This decision was historic, as it was the first time a category one country was expelled from the ICAO Council, and I am proud to say that ICAO was the first UN body to do so!”
—Henrik Hololei, European Commission, “The 41st Assembly of ICAO: A European Perspective,” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, Dec. 2022
“County Amendment 1 would amend the county charter to require the mayor and county commissioners to take an oath of office affirming that ‘They will support, protect, and defend the Miami-Dade County Home Rule Charter and the government of Miami-Dade County.’. . . Here’s what’s driving Amendment 1: In 2019 the Legislature tried to abolish the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which operates five local toll roads, and replace it with a state-run agency. The county has fought that measure off, for now, but there are worrisome rumblings that the state wants to take over the county’s prime economic engines: the airport and the seaport. . . . Miami-Dade County Referendum 2 asks county voters to amend the Home Rule Charter to specify that ownership or authority for Miami International Airport, PortMiami, and Miami-Dade Expressway Authority can’t be transferred without voter approval first.”
—Editorial Board, “November 2022 Election Recommendations,” Miami Herald, Nov. 4, 2022
“Digital towers—that is the wave of the future. It’s an opportunity to address some of our difficulties around staffing.”
—Jeffrey Vincent, FAA Vice President for Air Traffic Services, in “Why Digital Tower May Be the Future of FAA Contract Towers,” AAAE Aviation News Today, July 27, 2022
“In terms of the future, a radically-under-covered part of the most recent IPCC report is that it assigns a much lower probability to the extreme scenario (RCP8.5) featured in previous reports and deemed the most probable, ‘business as usual’ outcome in those reports. Put another way, the new report was surer that global warming is caused by humans, but much less sure that it would produce an extreme outcome. That would seem to qualify as good news, but the reception of the report still tended toward the apocalyptic. The UN Secretary General characterized the report’s message as a ‘code red for humanity,’ where only immediate, drastic action could prevent ‘catastrophe.’ Countless stories in mainstream media took a similar tack, which was amplified by environmental activists and echoed by most Democratic politicians.”
—Ruy Teixeira, “The Democrats’ Climate Problem: How Trying to Solve a Real Problem Turned into Political Kryptonite,” The Liberal Patriot, Oct. 27, 2022