Electric Airliners? Don’t Plan Your Trip Yet


“Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle!” was once the first idea every student learned—or at least heard—in Marketing 101. When the phrase was coined in the 1930s by Elmer Wheeler, it was accepted that there actually was a steak involved somewhere. Elmer would have swooned in the internet and social media age when even the sizzle is a figment of some bloodless, generative AI’s analysis of what’s certain to drive clicks.

In my experience, meetings with marketing people were like careening down a mountain road in my first car, a 1956 Bel Air with brakes that were mostly imaginary. You knew the wreck was just a matter of time and distance. Those of us who weren’t in marketing never knew quite what to say or do because, well, what if they were right? Thus was proven that marketing and sales in their outer reaches are really nothing but self-gaslighting. (Flagellation is also a word choice here but again, they could be right.)

This week’s story that Scandinavian Airlines is accepting reservations for seats on electric airliners shows that marketing still operates with weak brakes and an amusing lack of restraint. Reincarnated, Mr. Wheeler would be a happy gate agent in the brave new electric world. SAS has, by the way, sold all of the seats.

The target year is 2028. To its credit, SAS admits on its website that none of this is guaranteed, they don’t have an airplane that’s anywhere near flyable, and although they claim to have many initiatives underway, details are non-existent. To call the economics vaporous is to be generous.

Then why do this? Why offer something that’s so far in the future as to be a fantasy? Elmer Wheeler would nod knowingly, but SAS’s answer is an unsurprising and unswerving commitment to sustainable aviation. Fair enough. As I’ve pointed out before, this technology has to start somewhere. It’s unreasonable to expect it to emerge fully formed in an instant. It’s just as unreasonable to expect all of it to succeed or for all of it to fail.

But it always chaps me a little to see electric aviation companies—and maybe airlines, too—snowing the public by allowing them to assume this stuff is going to work and it’s just around the corner. That’s what selling tickets does, if you ask me. (You didn’t, but I’m compelled to offer an opinion.) The middle part of the aviation bell curve is populated by conservative skeptics, but it’s weighted toward the ingrate end. I’m in the middle somewhere edging toward the Unicorn band, but even I have my limits.

Every new thing needs forward-looking promotion to generate excitement for the future. Otherwise, we would be mired in the status quo. As optimistic as I am about electric airplanes, I don’t see electric airliners as a practical option for the foreseeable future, including Airbus’ ZEROe hydrogen technology. What’s driving these things is the race for low emissions. Airbus would allow you to think it’s zero emissions but the materials, electricity generation and hydrogen production all have a carbon budget. The investment to drive those emissions down will compete with fossil fuels for quite some time to come and fossil fuels have a definite economic advantage, at least for now. Sustainable aviation fuel will actually reduce that advantage and for the short term, it won’t help with emissions either, because SAF production hasn’t reached efficient scale.

One of SAS’s options is the Heart Aerospace ES-30 four-engine electric airliner, which the company claims will be in service by 2028. It will supposedly have a range of 120 miles with 30 passengers. But the company has no flying prototype, just a website with press releases. The aircraft is battery operated with turbogenerators either for backup or range extension. There is such a yawning gap between the ES-30’s on-paper performance and an extant turboprop that it will take an airline deeply committed to emissions reduction to pay more for it and get a lot less.

I’m willing to be proven wrong and Scandinavia may be just the region to do that. Consider this: In Norway, 80 percent of new car sales are EVs; 20 percent of all cars on the road are electric. And this is a country that produces a lot of oil to the tune of 4.3 percent of GDP. In Sweden, 62 percent of new sales are EVs, in Denmark it’s 50 percent, in Finland it’s 18 percent. In the U.S., for 2022, it was 5.6 percent.

Of course, any major transport aircraft program has to be launched with a world market in mind and with long legs over multiple years. This will be a persistent risk for companies, making me wonder if these projects are mainly throwaway technology incubators meant to develop something that eventually works and no actual type certificate is envisioned. Nothing new about that.

I doubt if I’ll be around long enough to buy a ticket on an electric airliner. But if I am and the damn thing can carry drinks for the passengers, I’ll raise one to Elmer Wheeler.

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  1. Every new technology starts with dreamers over promising and under delivering. The gullible and their money are soon parted but amid all the hype there are always a few who are the real deal.

    There are niches were despite the realities of limitations of battery power, you can see real promise. Short haul 9 pax commuters, including float planes and flight training are 2 that spring to mind. Neither is quite there yet but a path to viability that doesn’t involve magical thinking is, IMO within the art of the possible.

    As for the rest, and I especially include all of the electric VTOL sky taxis, well I just tune out the spin and laugh at the investors that are dropping billions on projects that promise things that basic physics say are impossible.

    All transformative change in aircraft starting with the Wright Brothers was a result of the development of power plants that burned hydrocarbon based fuels to generate a propulsive force.

    While it is possible an entirely new mode of power will be developed I am reasonably certain that in my lifetime none will be able to compete with conventional engine technology in most areas of commercial aviation, and I am OK with that.

    • I find it interesting that there are some wonderful self launched and motorized gliders powered by batteries, yet there’s really not that much interest. One could argue that since there is no great surge in soaring activity due to electrification, there very likely may be none for the rest of aviation. We should be spending more time on carbon reduction where it really matters instead of planes.

      OTOH, if the passenger carrying VTOL’s are made to work (even with petroleum engines) they at least offer to greatly improve on the helicopter as a transportation device. Once again though, we know the battery improvements are necessary or some equivalent to run all the electric motors.

      This rabbit hole inevitably ends at more nuclear power and better batteries. The flying part is relatively easy.

  2. Heart Aerospace is located down the road from where I live, and I hope things go well for them. The latest version is to me a hybrid aircraft, where conventional engines power the generators that powers the motors that propel the propellers. And you precharge the batteries before starting the day’s flights.

    SAS has huge economic issues as it is, so betting on these commuters doesn’t improve things, or worsen them, just feeds more enthusiasts dreaming about a green future.

    The aircraft started as a short-range commuter idea, and when the first prospective customer wanted more range and more seats the current version was developed.

    It keeps some guys busy, at least! Plans for the manufacturing plant are in full swing, so maybe Paul and I can share a drink onboard, one day! Time will tell, no doubt!

  3. On the day SAS is finally ready to fly their new, electric aircraft from Kastrup Airport, either the union in charge of the extension cord, the union in charge of throwing the switch, or the cabin crew will be on strike…

  4. There are plenty of people who look at videos produced by Airbus of flying wing hydrogen concepts for example, and believe they are real.
    They will argue with you when you say it is fantasy and computer graphics, because they have seen it with their own eyes.
    Way the world is.

  5. Paul, the comments do reflect your assessment of the aviation bell curve: strongly conservative skeptics!
    Let’s forget the batteries for now, but speaking of hydrogen, both electricity generation and hydrogen production (which is the same thing, the latter requiring a lot of the former), can be made carbon neutral if renewables or nuclear are used to generate said power. And since the airframes of hydrogen-powered aircraft can be very similar to current ones, I don’t see why we couldn’t have this type of propulsion on our lifetimes.

  6. Paul, I soloed a Black and white(rusty) 56 Bel air in 1965 as well as well as a Cessna 150. The C150 never changed much nor have the reasons people crash them. Cars have changed quite a bit but we crash them for mostly the same reasons, even electric ones. Oh, as for electric airplanes, I have not settled on an opinion.

  7. The EP’s (Electric Planes) would have to have a 12,000 miles extension cord for my flight; or, just use conventional jet engines. I’m sorry; this race to the bottom with net-zero emissions is just a pile of horse puckies!!! Just ask India and China while they build more an more coal fired electric generation plants to charge all your EV batteries!!

  8. Is it around the corner? Maybe not, but technology in almost every field is exploding in the digital age. And aviation is a part of this revolution. I will not be surprised to see single piloted airliners along with electric air taxis connecting the suburbs to major airports sooner rather than later.

  9. You watch the latest hopeful running toward the edge of Suicide Cliff; he assures you he will be able to fly although the others have failed because in a moment, he will be wearing new negative weight clothing that is in development even as he runs. You are unconvinced. Does this make you a “strongly conservative skeptic”?

  10. How about the hordes of electric helicopters flying to and from downtown in all kinds of weather? Propulsion aside, the separation scheme is going to be an absolute technical marvel.

    • The separation scheme is largely a software problem, which seems to have been solved – look at the almost commonplace displays of large swarms of synchronized, lighted drones.

  11. The people presenting the highest expectations are the least informed. Solar can generate current but they have very little amps. Fuel cells are a little better but the amps are still low and requires fuel. Nuclear is great but it cannot make electricity. It makes a lot of heat which makes steam that turns huge turbine generators. That means much more weight, hot steam with no river to cool the reactor. Batteries far outweigh fuel with much less energy density. A jet airliner can burn one gallon per second, so it would take a freight train to carry enough cells. Batteries could never safely release enough energy fast enough without bursting into flames. Solid O2 is required for oxidation and heat causes the solid form to turn back into oxygen gas (which can and does combust).

    Small applications using batteries can work and a generating system can improve the distance. If you say a battery system can be enlarged without expediently creating huge unsolvable problems, you may as well invest in the telegraph or smoke signals making a comeback!

  12. Obviously electric aviation will develop and mature over time. The advantages in reliability, noise and operating cost alone are huge (ignoring the emissions argument, just for simplicity’s sake). People are equally obviously keen to buy SAS’s sizzle. Hence immediately sold out seats. Buyers of said seats are no doubt clear eyed about the possibility their flight may be delayed. They don’t care. They are showing their support and approval of SAS’s direction and want to help accelerate that future. And we are all talking about it. Great marketing!

  13. If I recall correctly, nobody pays for the tickets until 60 days before the scheduled flight. Therefore, it’s ridiculous to state that tickets are “sold out” until money changes hands. Heck, I wish I’d thought to make a reservation. Then I could signal my “virtue”.

  14. It’s no secret that electric aircraft aren’t quite ready for prime time – not the transport category a/c anyway. Once science figures out a way to increase a battery’s energy density to a usable level then we’ll have something to talk about. I suspect it will happen but not with current battery tech.

  15. If someone could extract an electron from an atom, without using the forms of fusion we now assist and understand, may be (just may be) an extraction of that kind could provide such a quantity of electrons (even from a simple form of matter) necessary to put very high powerful electric engines with the capability to create real planes identical in range and weight (or even more) to the actual ones. Oh!, but that isn’t gone happen in my life time. That’s why I’m skeptic.

    • Pardon my nerdiness, but “engines” consume fuel and most, turbines excepted, have reciprocating parts. Thus, so-called electric engines are improperly named. They do not consume fuel, have no reciprocating parts. Just wires, iron, magnets.

      Please stop calling electric powerplants engines. It shows your ignorance.

      • An electric powerplant generates power, it is an electric motor that consumes it.

        Please stop calling motors powerplants. It shows your ignorance.

      • Pardoning your nerdiness, but your definition of the word engine is quite narrow. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says:

        “a machine for converting any of various forms of energy into mechanical force and motion”

        This is exactly what an electric motor does. No more, no less. By language convention in the U.S., we think of engines as thermally powered and motors as electric. In Europe, the convention is sometimes different. At Pipistrel, they use engine.

        Tomato, tahmahto.

  16. All this hoopla reminds me of the Moller Aero Car. Mr. Wheeler would be VERY proud of Mr. Molller. He’s been promising a “flying car” for decades and still gets investors. Amazing.

  17. As a card carrying 2% member of the “ingrate end of Paul’s Bell Curve,” I have only two words to say about pure electric airliners now or anywhere in the next two decades … ‘Bravo Sierra !!’