Ravn Alaska has announced that it will purchase 50 electric planes from California-based Airflow when they hit the market. Airflow planes will use batteries instead of gasoline to power their engines.
But the company must first finalize the design of its aircraft. Airflow CEO Marc Ausman said he hopes Airflow’s planes will be ready for service by 2025.
“My feeling is that if we can build an airplane that is successful in Alaska, it can be successful anywhere in the world,” he said.
Airflow planes are electric versions of short take-off and landing planes – the kind of small planes you might see private pilots flying around Alaska.
Ausman said they will be able to accommodate nine passengers each. They are not intended to replace existing Ravn planes, which are larger Dash-8 planes. Ravn serves Kenai and 12 other airports around Alaska.
Instead, Ausman said these planes are designed for smaller airports and cities.
This is in part because electric aircraft technology is more scalable. The internal combustion engines that planes currently use don’t adapt well to small planes, Ausman said.
“While electric motors are declining very well,” he said. “So we can put little electric motors, little propellers, all around the plane to do certain things.”
Ausman also said planes will need half the length of a typical runway to take off, which could make them optimal for rougher runways.
Airflow aircraft batteries are reminiscent of electric vehicle batteries. But Ausman said their batteries are designed differently, to make them even stronger against fires.
The first electric planes will have a range of 100 miles. Some of Airflow’s planes will be hybrids. These will be able to fly for 500 miles.
“Kind of think of it like a Prius, like a first step towards an all-electric car,” Ausman said.
Ravn CEO Rob McKinney said Airflow approached Ravn a few months ago to talk about his plan. He said he was excited to sign, in part because the smaller planes could allow Ravn to serve new destinations in Alaska.
“I have been a big supporter of electric aviation for over a decade now,” he said. “I really believe this is the future of small planes, especially at the start.”
He also said electric planes could save Ravn money. It takes a lot of gasoline to turn combustion engines on and off. This can add up for short flights.
Technology still has a long way to go. And Airflow isn’t the only company developing electric aircraft technology or signing deals with airlines. American Airlines has just announced its intention to buy electric planes from the British company Vertical Aerospace.
Ausman said Airflow has also signed agreements with other airlines operating in Alaska, but did not specify which ones.
Airflow is currently working on simulations and model airplanes. The next step is to create a proof of concept from an existing aircraft, Ausman said.
When the planes are ready, Ravn will collect them piecemeal, not all at once. McKinney plans to use the planes as a launching pad for the career of pilots.
“This is part of our larger agenda, as there is going to be a shortage of pilots nationwide,” McKinney said. “So it’s part of our plan to trade our own pilot flow with our Dash-8 fleet by having a fleet of smaller planes as a starting point for pilot careers. “
At the same time, Ausman said battery technology will become better and cheaper. This, he said, could make airline tickets more affordable in the long run.