Electric airplanes, vertical takeoff and cheap tickets mean we may soon do more flying than driving
By Ted Trautman | San Francisco Chronicle | October 27, 2018
It was rush hour in Los Angeles, but I was going 155 miles an hour, northbound along Interstate 5. Ordinarily that would merit a hefty ticket, but I wasn’t worried — the nearest cop was at least 10,000 feet away.
That’s the altitude we’d reached over the past few minutes in our tiny airplane, a four-seat Piper Turbo Arrow. I’d booked my flight through a ride-hailing app called Blackbird, which can fairly be called an Uber for airplanes.
“We’re hoping to deliver on the promise of the flying car,” Rudd Davis, founder and CEO of Blackbird Air, had told me a few days before my flight. “Right now, driving is miserable — road infrastructure isn’t getting any better, and there are more and more cars on the road.” From the air, I looked down at the gridlock and found myself agreeing with Davis’ assessment.
Before long, however, our route from Santa Monica to Oakland took us over vast stretches of undeveloped land between I-5 and Highway 101. My two fellow passengers and I, all men in our 30s, snapped photos as giddily as tourists at Mount Rushmore. Meanwhile Craig Taverna, our pilot, offered his take on the incredible view all around us. “The hardest part about flying on a nice day like today,” he explained, “is trying not to die of boredom.”
That’s how banal the miracle of human flight can seem to an experienced aviator. And the rest of us may soon be just as jaded. A squadron’s worth of new ideas in both engineering and business may soon make short, small, affordable flights just as commonplace for middle-class commuters and tourists as they already are for one-percenters and amateur pilots.
That may sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but it wouldn’t be the first time that aviation technology has soared suddenly beyond our expectations. In a talk at the recent Revolution.Aero industry conference in San Francisco, engineer and entrepreneur Paul Touw pointed out that back in 1903, the Wright brothers’ first successful flight took place just nine days after the New York Times had run an article claiming that “man won’t fly for a million years.”
In his presentation, Touw argued that air routes are more flexible and less expensive than building and maintaining roads and rails. “You could theoretically replace the whole California high-speed rail line” — currently projected to cost about $100 billion — “with something that would probably cost you one-fifth the price,” he told me later. “And you’re not limited to serving communities along a straight line. With aircraft, you can serve communities to the north, the south, the east — wherever’s needed.”
Until recently, Touw explained, air travel has made the most economic sense on trips 300 miles or longer, along popular routes that can regularly fill 150 seats or more. Besides pure supply and demand, routes have also been determined by factors such as public safety, noise pollution and the large space required for airports.
But recent innovations stand to change the economic calculus of flight, and in turn the scale and speed at which we move around our communities. Private flights have long been available to the wealthy; like a helicopter landing in your front yard, the cost of on-demand flight is coming down to meet you where you are.
Dozens of businesses are working to design electric aircraft that are dramatically cheaper both to fuel and to maintain. Some of these vehicles will be able to take off and land vertically, sans runway. At least a few startups are looking for ways to make more efficient use of the planes and runways we already have. Together, these efforts will likely lead to a new era of more, shorter flights in smaller planes. In the foreseeable future, you might be flying from San Francisco to Truckee — or even just across town.
Here are some the biggest changes coming to an airport near you:
Electric and hybrid power
Just as electric motors redefined what a car can be, a decade later they are having a similar effect on airplanes. Worldwide, more than 120 companies are racing to design aircraft powered by electric batteries rather than conventional aviation turbine fuel. Some of the best-known players in this race include Boeing, Airbus, Google and Uber.
Each company’s design is different, of course, but a feature common to all electric motors is that they are incredibly efficient — about 94 percent efficient on average, according to Touw, meaning that almost all the energy carried in the battery is spent actually propelling the aircraft. Compare that to the mere 24 percent efficiency of a typical gas-burning airplane motor; the rest is wasted as heat and friction between moving parts.
Electric propulsion advocates argue that this efficiency will bring the cost of flight down to a range comparable with ground-level options. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy and Uber, Touw calculates that electric aircraft can complete a 50-mile trip at a 10 percent lower price per passenger than a bus, in a third of the time. Cars and trains would still be slightly cheaper, but still twice as slow as an electric plane.
“So you’ve got this disruptive technology, and it’s ready to go!” Touw enthused, before he qualified that statement. “Well, it’s not quite fully ready. But the enabling technology is fully proven.”
Estimates vary as to when electric aircraft will hit the skies; some companies claim they will be airborne as soon as next year. But one thing is almost certain: The first vehicles in the air will be small, carrying two to four passengers. Don’t be surprised if you spot an electric hoverbike on your block before you see a 737 plugged into the wall between flights. Electric motors may be more efficient than combustion motors, but they’re not quite ready for commercial use: Even a small airplane needs a lot more power than a Tesla.
That’s why some industry players are focusing on a hybrid motor instead. One such outfit is XTI Aircraft Co. in Denver. XTI is working on a six-seat aircraft called the TriFan 600, which will use electric power to take off and land — vertically, about which more below — while switching to conventional jet fuel for horizontal portion of the flight.
“If a plane is reliant only on battery power, it is just far too limited both in speed and range,” says Vice President Saleem Zaheer. By opting for a hybrid motor, he says, “We believe we have a much better chance at certification” from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA has signaled a willingness to put electric vehicles in the air. Last year, the agency paved the way for certifying electric aircraft with a major rewrite of Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which govern planes carrying 19 or fewer passengers. Tossing out the old prescriptive requirements, which required planes to contain certain traditional parts, the new rules grant certification to any aircraft that passes performance-based tests, regardless of the power source. Earlier this year, the FAA approved its first all-electric plane — a two-seat trainer made by Slovenia manufacturer Pipistrel.
Despite the FAA’s accommodation, electric aircraft makers still face a steep climb. While Uber and other transportation innovators have thrived by openly flouting the rules, that is not an option in the heavily regulated world of aviation. “Move fast and break things” might work for Facebook, but that’s a worst-case scenario for airplanes. “The FAA moves slow for good reason,” Touw concedes. “It would be a disaster if these new vehicles went up into the sky and then suddenly there were a zillion accidents.”
“It’s not all going to be an automatic process, not at all,” says XTI’s Zaheer. “You’ve got to jump through these hoops with the FAA, but we’re happy to do it. They’re there for a very good reason.”
Vertical takeoff, landing
Many of the electric-powered vehicles currently in development make up an entirely new species of aircraft: one that can ascend and descend vertically like a helicopter, but fly long distances like an airplane. The U.S. military already uses vehicles that fit this description, such as the V-22 Osprey and the Harrier jet, but have yet to be used in a commercial context.
What distinguishes the new wave of “vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft from their military forebears is that they are designed with the goal of serving civilian passengers at (more or less) affordable prices, and that almost of all of them rely in full or in part on electric propulsion. Many such designs look a bit like the recreational drones now commonly seen at beaches and parks, but lifted by three or more small blades rather than one large one.
XTI Aircraft’s TriFan 600 is a vertical-takeoff/landing aircraft, and the company’s ethos is captured in its name. Zaheer told me that XTI stands for Extended Technology and Innovation. Extended is the key word, he explained. “We’re not necessarily breaking new boundaries. Instead, we’re using existing technology in a very new and smart way.”
The TriFan 600, a six-seat luxury aircraft is currently under development. Later this year, the company plans to test a 65 percent scale prototype. (It declined to confirm whether the prototype would be controlled by a 65 percent scale pilot.)
The craft is designed to travel up to 770 miles after a vertical takeoff. That means you could conceivably lift off from your local helipad in San Francisco and fly all the way to Seattle or Phoenix.
Besides the big international airports with which we are all familiar — SFO, OAK and all the rest — there is a parallel network of small airports and runways about which most travelers know absolutely nothing.
Charter flights and personal aircraft fly in and out of more than 13,000 general-aviation and private airports across the U.S. In the Bay Area, this includes midsize facilities in Hayward, Livermore, Napa, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Carlos and Santa Rosa. Altogether there are 225 public, non-commercial airports scattered throughout California, from Imperial to Crescent City (Del Norte County).
In addition to California’s many airports, there are hundreds more helipads, found in remote towns and downtowns alike. This widespread, low-maintenance infrastructure will come in very handy if and when the vertical mobility aircraft make their debut in the transportation ecosystem, and entrepreneurs have sensed an opportunity.
“All these airports are there to be used!” Blackbird’s Davis laments. “Currently, though, a lot of them sit fallow.”
The same goes for empty seats on planes in the air. Davis says he came up with the idea for Blackbird while learning to pilot a four-seat Cessna 182 Skylane. An instructor mentioned that it costs about $180 per hour to operate that particular aircraft, and it occurred to Davis that that cost, split among three passengers, would make for some surprisingly affordable flights to places where a Bay Area resident might ordinarily drive — such as Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“Our goal is to make flying as cheap and convenient as driving,” Davis says. My flight from L.A. to Oakland, as an example, cost $50 — not much more than a tank of gas.
At that price, skipping a five-hour drive will be tempting to a lot of people. For Blackbird, the biggest challenge will be attracting a critical mass of pilots to participate. There are only about 609,000 pilots licensed in the U.S. today, according to the FAA’s latest Civil Airmen Statistics. In contrast, Uber and Lyft and other car services have a pool of 222 million licensed drivers to draw from.
Besides Blackbird’s ride-hailing service, called Hitch, the company also helps users find seats on private charter flights. There are 3,500 charter operators in the U.S., and they will gladly sell seats to the public. “But because the price might be a few dollars more,” Davis says, “they won’t necessarily show up in Kayak.”
JetSuiteX in Southern California offers a similar charter service. So does Skyjet, albeit with a focus on higher-end options, and PrivateFly does the same thing, primarily in Europe. (The latter two companies merged this fall.)
SurfAir of Mountain View puts small airports to use in a different way: Rather than sell individual tickets, the airline offers all-you-can-fly subscriptions. But the company’s been struggling recently, discontinuing flights out of San Carlos.
Each in its own way, these companies offer customers a more customized way to fly. In some cases, such as Blackbird’s Hitch service, the price drops low enough that it is within reach of a middle-class traveler. In other cases, the price of a private charter ticket is lower than it might be listed elsewhere, but still not low. What these services offer in common, though, is the chance to bypass everything that has become unpleasant about mainstream commercial flight: the need to arrive an hour early, the nickel-and-diming over carry-ons and headphones, the invasive security searches, the overpriced junk food.
When I arrived at the airport the other day for my flight, within five minutes we were in the air. And when we landed in Oakland, I went to meet a friend for dinner before heading home as I usually would after a flying back to town. Even though I’d started the day 400 miles away, I didn’t feel like I’d been on a “trip.” It felt like I was coming home from work.
An expanding Bay Area?
As short air travel expands the radius that a person can reasonably, affordably travel for a weekend getaway as well as a daily commute, it’s worth asking whether the boundaries of the Bay Area itself will shift. The greater Bay Area is generally defined as the nine counties that touch the San Francisco Bay. That is also, more or less, the area in which one could live and reasonably make it to San Francisco and back each day.
But if regional flights allow some of us to regularly travel between the city and, say, Sacramento, does that mean the Bay Area now extends that far? Among the people I’ve been speaking with, the consensus seems to be: basically yes.
Paul Touw: “With aircraft, you’ve now expanded the places that people would reasonably want to live!”
Rudd Davis of Blackbird carries the idea further. “What happens when you spend those same 45 minutes commuting, but you can go 150 miles?” he says. “You start to change what a suburb is. The cost of living starts to drop.
“Take Novato,” he adds. “It’s 65 miles from Palo Alto. The median wage there is $100,000, but in Palo Alto it’s $156,000. You fly from one place to the other in 20 minutes, and you have actually just created an income arbitrage. Your wages go up, your cost of living stays the same.” It’s a nice thought, though of course in that scenario, housing costs would surely rise sooner or later with the prospect of higher incomes.
Sometimes when I’m killing time at the airport, I hum an old John Denver tune: “I’m leaving on a jet plane/ Don’t know when I’ll be back again...” But the lyrics are getting outdated. Soon, perhaps we’ll be singing: “I’m leaving on a jet plane/ Could you pick up the dry cleaning? I’ll see you at dinner.”