United, Mesa airlines order 200 electric 19-seater planes for short-hop flights

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America's United Airlines and regional carrier Mesa Airlines have together ordered 200 electric airplanes from an aerospace startup for short-distance passenger flights.

Last year, United promised to slash its greenhouse-gas emissions by 100 per cent by 2050. To help reach that target, an investment unit dubbed United Airlines Ventures (UAV) was created to plow millions into technology that is supposed to make greener air transport possible.

One of the startups that caught United's eye is Heart Aerospace. Now UAV, Mesa, and Breakthrough Energy Ventures – a VC firm founded by Bill Gates – have led a series-A investment round that's raised $35m for the Swedish company. As well as that, the airlines have together put in an order for 200 of Heart's ES-19 electric aircraft, each capable of carrying up to 19 passengers, and signaled they may purchase 100 more aircraft. These orders are subject to terms so the final figure of delivered airplanes may change.

"I can’t imagine a stronger coalition of partners to advance our mission to electrify short-haul air travel,” said [PDF] Anders Forslund, CEO of Heart Aerospace.

“There’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures – the world’s most influential climate fund. There’s United – one of the world’s largest airlines, who’s poised to be the global leader in decarbonising air travel, and there’s Mesa, the largest operator of 19-seater aircraft in history. This combination of near-term commercial viability and long-term climate investment philosophy is exactly what we need to make commercial electric air travel a reality.”

The ES-19 is designed to fly short distances; we're talking 250 miles or 400km max on today's Li-ion batteries, which wouldn't even get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The aircraft uses propellers spun by electric motors, and journeys are limited by the plane’s electric battery storage. Its selling point is that it's supposed to be cheaper to fly than traditional planes. Depending on how the electricity for it is generated, and the batteries used, it might be a greener alternative, too.

A Heart ES-19 electric plane

Heart's content ... Aircraft manufacturer's rendering of its ES-19 design. Click to enlarge

As a regional player, Mesa, which is based in Phoenix, Arizona, chiefly connects cities across America, and in the 1990s was said to be the world’s largest operator of 19-seat aircraft. However, as Heart put it in its investment round announcement, "Over the past 30 years, as the economics of operating 19-seat aircraft became unprofitable, operators exited markets, and over 1,500 nineteen seat passenger aircraft have been retired. The reduced operating costs of the ES-19 aircraft holds the promise of revitalizing travel options that are currently not economically viable with traditional aircraft."

Heart Aerospace thus reckons its electric planes will increase demand for short regional routes, like Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Purdue University Airport or San Francisco International Airport to Modesto City-County Airport.

“We are proud to work with United and Heart to launch the world’s first electric, regional aircraft,” said Mesa’s chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “These technological innovations are good for the environment, will expand the national transportation system, and provide significant growth opportunities for Mesa. We look forward to reconnecting with communities and passengers we previously served.”

Of course, the ES-19 has to fulfill all the necessary safety and operating requirements, and it's hoped to be in the skies for commercial flights by 2026. ®


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