Finnair Intends To Acquire 19-Seat Electric Aircraft

Filed Under: Finnair

The airline industry will have to become more sustainable over time. We’re now seeing airlines introduce additional sustainability initiatives, including in some cases offsetting flights, and committing to having more fuel efficient fleets. Beyond that we’re seeing the development of new aircraft technology, and airlines are increasingly expressing interest in electric aircraft. Here’s the latest such case.

Finnair expresses interest in electric aircraft

Finnair has signed a Letter of Interest to acquire up to 20 of Heart Aerospace’s ES-19 aircraft. These electric aircraft each seat up to 19 passengers, and will have an all-electric range of 400 kilometers.

Heart Aerospace ES-19 aircraft

Heart Aerospace is an aerospace startup based in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the plane is currently under development, with plans for it to enter commercial service by 2026.

As Anne Larilahti, Finnair Vice President of Sustainability, describes this development:

“Finnair believes electric aviation will be one of the tools for the future of flying. It will help to promote responsible and sustainable aviation especially on short routes, in an era where climate change will increasingly dominate the agenda.

We want to be actively involved in developing and implementing new technologies which enable carbon-neutral flying.

Solving the climate challenge of flying is essential so that the social and economic benefits of aviation can continue. Many of the measures require collaboration across industries in tandem with partners playing a key role in our ongoing sustainability work.”

Finnair is committed to halving its net CO2 emissions by the end of 2025 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. In order to accomplish this, the airline is focused on improving fuel efficiency, reducing aircraft weight, combining different modes of transport, emissions trading, and sustainable aviation fuels.

This is very cool, but…

Obviously the focus on this kind of technology is awesome and commendable, and a more sustainable future for aviation is a marathon and not a race. With that in mind, I have a couple of different thoughts.

First of all, I wouldn’t read too much into the “letter of interest.” Ultimately this seems to me like a mutually beneficial publicity stunt — Finnair is showing its commitment to the environment, and it makes Heart Aerospace look good to be backed by a major airline. I doubt Finnair is putting down much of a deposit, especially in this current environment.

Beyond that, I’m not sure I entirely get how this fits into Finnair’s fleet planning?

  • This plane seats at most 19 passengers, while Finnair’s current smallest plane seats 68 passengers
  • While an electric plane concept is awesome, realistically how practical is it? It seems the plane has a range of 400 kilometers, so how long will it have to charge between uses, and how many markets does Finnair serve where a 19-seat plane makes sense?
  • It’s great when it’s advertised that a plane can greatly reduce emissions and save money, but that comparison is only valuable when compared to a similar plane

Airbus is developing zero-emission commercial aircraft that are high capacity, and those are practical in the sense that they could actually replace existing planes.

Airbus is developing zero-emission commercial aircraft

However, some of the other initiatives we’re seeing don’t seem quite as practical. For example, United Airlines revealed that it plans to operate 200 electric air taxis. I mean, I guess that’s cool, but that doesn’t really do much to help make United’s fleet more efficient, it just means the airline is trying to expand into a new industry, and compete with the likes of BLADE, Uber, etc.

United Airlines plans to operate up to 200 electric air taxis

Similarly, I suppose that Finnair may be looking to expand into new markets that can’t currently be served, because otherwise I’m not sure how practical this would be.

Bottom line

Finnair has expressed interest in ordering up to 20 ES-19s, which are 19-seat electric aircraft that could enter service by 2026. It’s awesome to see technology like this being developed, though the logistics when it comes to airline operations are still a mystery to me.

19-seat planes with an electric range of 400 kilometers don’t seem to do much to replace any existing aircraft Finnair may operate, which at a minimum have roughly at least four times as much capacity.

What do you make of Finnair’s interest in these electric planes?

  1. This seems like a technology that will rapidly mature over time, so aircraft such as the Heart Aerospace 19 seater will quickly seem primitive. But this is the size and type of aircraft that is a logical starting place, as opposed to these fantasies of an E-jet to take the place of a 737. Those could take a decade or more to get going. Battery power and range are huge issues, as is the charging technology (this will require a LOT of juice). And, with an aircraft, you need multiple redundancies to ensure safety. Harder to engineer than one may think.

    Decent first step I guess, but not yet very practical. Perhaps good for runs in Finland’s north – IF the batteries are engineered for the cold conditions (on the ground as well as in the air).

  2. I’ve flown on Norra (Finnair) E190s for the 40 mile hop between Helsinki and Tallinn with less than 20 people on board. Expand the thinking a little and I could envision many current and new city pairs where type of plane makes sense.

  3. As with all claims of a “zero emissions” vehicle, it all depends where you draw the box around the energy chain. A battery or hydrogen powered car does little to help with global emissions reduction if the energy to charge the batteries or generate the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels. It can be beneficial for localized emissions reduction, as in an inner city or underground mine.

    In my humble view, aviation should be one of the last industries to make a major move away from fossil fuels. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a more demanding application than aviation, esp long haul, that requires massive amounts of energy at an absolute minimum amount of weight. Looking at global CO2 emissions reduction, the world would be best served by first generating enough renewable energy to power the current electrical energy demand, then focus on the easier to convert applications such as manufacturing and land based travel usage. This covers well over 95% of global CO2 emissions, and is also a very ambitious goal.

    If one really-really wants their airplane to be green, you should look at bio-fuels in the short to mid term time range. Put electrically powered aviation on the back burner for a while and concentrate on the much lower hanging, and much larger, fruit first.

  4. Just because something is “electric” doesn’t make it environmentally friendly. The electricity has to come from somewhere and in some cases it is not only as damaging as oil, but even more so.

  5. @HeathrowGuy read my mind: I can totally see this replacing ATRs on the HEL-TLL route – it’s frequent, short and over water, so ferries are the only competitor here. And it’s not like those ATRs are consistently full.

    I can also imagine this on short feeder hops, like HEL-TKU, HEL-TMP, TKU-ARN… I’ve flown those segments several times and mostly it’s been on Saabs, ATRs and CRJs, often far from full.
    Over time as range increases, Lapland can also be in reach, even if with a stop in Oulu.
    Mind that we’re only talking about hub feeders here – most of the point-to-point overland routes are likely to be taken over by rail anyway.

  6. @jcil – I completely agree. It’s greenwashing to say your E-anything is zero emissions when it’s being charged by an electrical grid that’s still hugely dependent on fossil fuels.

    Agree with Lucky that a Letter Of Interest is non-binding and meant to drum up some positive press for both companies.

  7. As alluded to above. People need to realize that electricity, like hydrogen, is not a fuel. And to expect windmills and solar to accomplish the transformation is just dreaming.

  8. We have to start somewhere, right? Did majority of us ever think this far even 10 years ago? No! So this is definitely a great start and a beginning. Let’s not jump into 100-seater right now.

    Being in this area of R&D and technology for over a decade, I can assure you we will see quite a few 50+ passenger “all-electric” flights flying at least 1000 km on a single charge, in the next 2-3 years.

  9. I would love to see it. But….. how long have we been trying to have electric cars? I believe it started in 1973 with GM, almost 50 years ago. And cars don’t fall out of the sky when breaking down; therefore, they have a much lower risk factor in killing people. Still… 50 years, and we still have a very tiny sector of manufacturing electric cars. Even if Airbus or Boeing, or any other manufacturers shows up with a working model today, how many years will it take for the FAA or EASA to sign off on it?

  10. This is pure höpöhöpö (Finnish for nonsense) and will never see daylight. While there are lots of routes within Finland where an aircraft with 19 seats would do, it will not work for Finnair or its subsidiary. Perhaps it could work for a small operator with low fixed costs.

    But those batteries need to be changed at least once a year (if they intend to operate efficiently), which should cost a fortune.

    Perhaps good PR for Finnair at this stage, but nothing more will come out of it.

  11. @kk13 I like your optimistic view. I’m not trying to be sarcastic.
    The issue is as I stated above, even if they come out today with anything that works like you stated, FAA and EASA studies and certification will take years.
    Airlines right now still enjoying a very comfortable profit margin with today’s oil prices. Until that changes, profit will trump any green initiatives. I’m not challenging that manufacturers will be able to produce this, I’m just not sure if airlines really care to shake up their money box for this. See Concord or A380. A huge leap of technology in their own ways. No airlines wanted them

  12. Thanks for covering this important topic.

    The superior operating economics (primarily reduced maintenance costs) of electric aircraft where they are capable of the mission crush fossil fuel competitors. It makes tons of routes profitable at lesser load factors that will open up many regional/commuter markets that are otherwise served by things like cars or high-speed rail.

    Many of the comments here about “whole chain” emissions are pretty off-base. The total picture emissions of electric vehicles (including aircraft when developed) are orders of magnitude lower than fossil-fuel vehicles, especially when you consider the rapidly decreasing grid-related emissions.

    Sweden’s whole country energy emissions are half of what they produced in 1995 even though they use the same energy and rapidly becoming even more green as more renewables come online. Greening ground electrical grids is happening quickly because brand new renewables are cheaper than existing coal and other fossil fuel plants in most areas.

    Excited to see more developments on this front.

  13. @Eric I don’t think you really understand orders of magnitude. If you believe electric cars use 0.1% the energy (3 orders of magnitude) of gasoline cars you need to do some more research.

  14. @Jcil, hah okay, you got me, slight hyperbole.

    A more realistic ratio of emissions from all sources related to use of an EV over fossil-fuel is 1:5 in California (the EV produces a fifth of the fossil powered vehicle, source AFDC Energy Gov). I don’t have the exact numbers for Sweden at hand, but their grid is likely cleaner than California’s so an EV versus fossil will be an even more favorable relationship in Sweden.

    To be more precise, better than half an order of magnitude, but we’re probably above the heads of the “hurr, electricity needs coal,” crowd here.

  15. Don’t you just love the internet, a place where all human knowledge is available for a few keystrokes and at the same time a place where the pig ignorant can spout utter claptrap when they see something that doesn’t chime wi the their narrow worldview.

    First off let’s deal with the nonsense about emissions. I couldn’t find a good study on electric planes but let’s look at one for electric cars. This paper uses the Argonne National Labs lifecycle emissions model to compare internal combustion and electric vehicles.

    If you don’t have journal access, try you local library or read this summary.

    In short and ICE vehicle will emit 37.5 tonnes of CO2 more than an EV over lifecycle from manufacturing through use to disposal when powered by the US grid at 13% renewables.

    Let’s look at the Finnish energy mix.

    51% was carbon free sources, renewable plus nuclear. So going back to the research above that’s going to mean a Finnish EV produces something if the order of 47 tonnes less CO2.

    Of course we have to make the leap that this will still hold true for planes but that seems likely.

    Secondly even if carbon emissions don’t worry you, electric planes will dramatically reduce other pollutants, lower oxides of sulphur, oxides of nitrogen and particulates mean smog, less asthma, better health outcomes for all.

  16. @Ed You smugness causes you to assume quite a bit about people trying to have an honest discussion. Numbers without any reference to what they are being compared to are not so useful. In the study cited the EV produced 30.83 tons CO2 compared to 68.38 for the ICE. This is a reduction of about 55%. It is a step in the right direction, but nowhere close to the “orders of magnitude” reduction that that was also claimed (if only for effect)

  17. “It seems the plane has a range of 400 kilometers, so how long will it have to charge between uses, and how many markets does Finnair serve where a 19-seat plane makes sense?”
    Domestic flights (Mariehamn?) and other regional intra-Nordic flights, TLL shuttle (in much higher frequency than today)…

    I can see a lot of opportunities IF electric operations are significantly cheaper.

  18. “How long does the plane have to charge between flights?” is a critical question. The answer could be “no time at all” if it uses a removable battery. Each airport would just keep sufficient charged batteries on hand to handle the traffic, and charge them off-line.

  19. I would suspect that they will do some sort of hot swap on the batteries so the plane doesn’t sit. The issue is when they get diverted to an airport that is not equipped with either replacement batteries or charging equipment. You’re not going to plug the plane into an ordinary 220 outlet.

  20. @jcil Agreed with mangoMan; your first comment nailed it.

    IMHO, until we have the next revolution in battery technology and propulsion technology, it is all but a pipe dream.

    The carbon footprint from mining lithium and other REM required to make the batteries, transporting the mined lithium and other REM to the factory to make the batteries, and processing expired batteries are often (if not purposely) overlooked when discussing EV’s.

    Not to mention how volatile lithium is. Remember the fiasco regarding lithium batteries during 787’s launch. Now imagine lithium batteries are your main source of power.

    Also, the biggest leap in aviation thus far happened when we went from propellors to jet engines. But present day jet engines require combustion that is not possible with electricity, so the only propulsion method currently feasible with electricity is electric motor propellors. How effective and scalable are electric motors in generating thrust remains to be seen.

    I won’t be surprised if we see lightweight electric aircrafts (like an electric Cessna) or electric helicopters going mainstream within the next decade, but electricity will be a no-no for airliners with current propulsion technology.

    Beyond electric motor propellors, the next revolution in propulsion technology could likely be electricity generated plasma thrusters, but those are perhaps decades away. Currently, electric thrusters are available on small spacecrafts like satellites for attitude control. But those require very low power output. To provide enough thrust for an aircraft, you need electrical power (mega-watts) far beyond what present day batteries can handle. If we make breakthroughs in nuclear fusion technology, perhaps a fusion reactor would be the perfect power source for large scale plasma thrusters.

  21. I do agree that a 19-seat plane with 400 km does not make any business sense for Finnair. There is only a handful of routes that it would suit. Additionally, there is absolutely no indication that operating an electric aircraft would be more economical – on the contrary, it is bound to be a lot more expensive, given that the technology is so new and still under development.

    However, Finland does have a government run by a green party plus several green-ish parties, and Finnair is majority government-owned. Additionally, many of the current domestic routes are not profitable even as they are, but they are operated with the help of government subsidies. Finnair actually abandoned several routes recently and they have just been awarded to other companies through government contracts.

    The center-left-green politics seem to drive a slightly contradictory policy of maintaining good connections to the smaller, remote cities while also penalising all forms of traffic due to emissions. So I could actually imagine the government pouring tons of money into acquiring a couple of small electric planes for the purpose of moral gain. Of course this has no practical impact in the big picture, but who cares.

  22. While the concept of electric planes is fascinating and holds a lot of promise, I still think that biofuels offer more and faster return on investment in terms of CO2 reduction.

  23. I could see this plane working well for services to the Isles of Scilly, Shetland to Fair Isle, Orkney to Shetland, Glasgow to Campbeltown, Oban to various Inner Hebrides. Presently run by Twin Otters, BN Islanders, Saab 340s, plenty of wind power to recharge packs, tidal in some spots, solar at Scilly. The reduced noise of electric propulsion would be another bonus at these sensitive locations.

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