Hmm: United Airlines Orders 200 Electric Air Taxis

Filed Under: United

Pre-pandemic a major focus for airlines was investing in sustainable aviation (probably due to social pressure). This has come in the form of carbon offsetting flights, as well as committing to investing in more sustainable forms of aviation.

Well, United Airlines has just announced its first plans to operate electric planes, though it’s not what you’d think, and the headline almost reads like it could be an April Fools’ joke.

United Airlines to invest in Archer, buy 200 electric air taxis

United Airlines has announced plans to work with air mobility company Archer as part of a broader effort to invest in emerging technologies that decarbonize air travel.

Rather than relying on traditional combustion engines, Archer’s electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft are designed to use electric motors, and have the potential for future use as “air taxis” in urban markets.

With current technology, Archer aircraft are designed to travel distances of up to 60 miles, at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour. The plan is for future models to travel faster and further. Archer’s plan is to launch between Hollywood and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and it’s estimated that it could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 47% per passenger.

Under United’s agreement with Archer:

  • United will contribute its expertise in airspace management to assist Archer with the development of battery powered, short haul aircraft
  • Once the aircraft are in operation and have met United’s operating and business requirements, United will acquire a fleet of up to 200 of these electric aircraft that would operate for Mesa Airlines
  • These planes would be intended to give customers a “quick, economical, and low carbon way to get to United’s hub airports and commute in dense urban environments within the next five years”

United Airlines claims that this investment in Archer will improve the customer experience and earn a strong financial return. As United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby describes this investment:

“Part of how United will combat global warming is by embracing emerging technologies that decarbonize air travel . By working with Archer, United is showing the aviation industry that now is the time to embrace cleaner, more efficient modes of transportation. With the right technology, we can curb the impact aircraft have on the planet, but we have to identify the next generation of companies who will make this a reality early and find ways to help them get off the ground. Archer’s eVTOL design, manufacturing model and engineering expertise has the clear potential to change how people commute within major metropolitan cities all over the world.”

I guess United’s investment in Archer is cool, but…

I have a few different thoughts here, aside from this generally being a nifty concept.

First of all, this seems like an unusual extension for an airline investing in sustainable aviation. These aren’t replacements for jets, but rather are replacements for cars and helicopters. United and Mesa have placed an order for these planes, so will United Express start operating transportation from cities to airports? If so, will there be first class, what will elite benefits look like, and how many miles will need to be redeemed for a flight? šŸ˜‰

Next, I’m not sure I actually fully buy that this is objectively good for the environment. Sure, emissions here are lower than in a helicopter, so if that’s the alternative I suppose that’s true. However:

  • The claim is that CO2 emissions are lower than in cars, but cars are increasingly becoming electric, so it’s not really fair to compare today’s gas cars to an air taxi that will only operate several years down the road, when more cars will be electric as well
  • The emissions statistic doesn’t factor in that people will have to get to the air taxi departure points, and that presumably the reduction in emissions are based on these taxis always flying full, which is unlikely to be the case
  • At $5 million per frame plus operating costs, seats won’t be particularly cheap, not to mention there will be limits to how many of these can operate at any point; in other words, these won’t fully replace cars and somehow become the way that everyone gets to airports

So yeah, this is definitely an improvement in every way compared to helicopters, but helicopters aren’t how most people get to airports.

That makes me believe that United’s primary motivation here is that it thinks Archer is a good financial investment. Archer plans to go public, and United has invested some undisclosed amount in the company. While we don’t know how much cash United is investing right now (presumably a lot of money will be paid down the road), aren’t the optics of United spending money on this while also taking billions in taxpayer support kind of bad?

Bottom line

United Airlines is investing in Archer, and has placed an order for 200 electric air taxis. While these seem like great alternatives to helicopters, I can’t help but find everything else about this a bit strange.

Is United now trying to compete with Uber and Blade? Is this actually at all about the environment, because if this is about reducing emissions on the way to airports, it seems like electric cars would be more useful and accessible? And is this really the time for an airline to be promoting that it’s investing $1 billion in something it believes will “earn a strong financial return,” as it has just taken billions of dollars in taxpayer funds?

What do you make of United’s investment in Archer, and order of 200 electric air taxis?

Comments
  1. Itā€™s something genuinely innovative – helicopters donā€™t get used much because they are antiquated and not built for the higher payload mission leaving a gap for technology to fill.

    Thanks for sharing but how about a more productive attitude toward UNITED which is clearly rising to leadership.

  2. I’m sure you will need to have elite status/first class just to get on the air taxi… and that’s the heart of the issue. People that can afford elite status/first class will be able to afford expensive/new electric cars earlier. This means people electric cars will get on the electric air taxi, while those in coach with gas and diesel cars will still be making the commute to the airport and producing emissions.

  3. Presumably this operates something like an Osprey. Aren’t those notoriously difficult to fly? And the area of operations seems kinda crowded.

    I prefer my green investments to be a bit further up, or is it down, the food chain. Copper mines etc.

  4. I live in West Hollywood and (pre-pandemic) would fly every week for work. A helicopter taxi service to LAX from Hollywood would be a godsend considering there’s no easy freeway access from where I am.

    Ben – your points against the service are a little… nitpicky.
    1. While, yes, cars are increasingly moving towards electric (with CA outlawing non-electric new car sales in the future – forget when exactly), should that be held against companies that are trying here and now to lower emissions in alternate ways? We shouldn’t just sit on our hands and do nothing just because cars are going electric.

    2. Your second point kinda directly works against your first. Yes you have to get to the departure point, and can do so in an hybrid/electric/hydrogen car or bike or walk or pogo stick. Not sure how it’s relevant to the company saving emissions.

    3. They’re not going to try recouping the $5M on the first seats sold… you know how much airplanes cost and also see how much economy seats are sold for. If seats cost around $100 one way that’s actually pretty fair value for Hollywood to LAX considering (pre-pandemic) Uber costs ~$50-80 depending on traffic. Old-fashioned Taxis cost easily $80-$120. And luxury chauffeurs are about $120-$200. Even if seats cost $200+ one way, the Hollywood elite will snap them up for the convenience factor alone.

  5. Cars ARE increasingly electric, but the best-selling Ford F-150 is getting 25 mpg city/highway in the 2021 model year. That’s simply not good enough right now. I applaud any attempt by any transportation company to go all electric quickly as it puts greater pressure on traditional manufacturers to get there sooner.

  6. Yeah this is going to help out a small percentage of passengers arriving/leaving an airport, unless they somehow plan to have tons of these taking off and landing every hour at an airport.

  7. @ Super — All fair points, and maybe I didn’t express myself well. What I’m getting at is that this isn’t doing anything to reduce emissions with United’s core business. There are several projects underway that would significantly reduce emissions for commercial aircraft, but United is choosing to focus on this.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but personally I view it no different than United announcing it’s going to invest $1 billion in Tesla (not that Tesla needs any more money). The cars are awesome and electric, but what does that have to do with operating a global airline?

  8. @Lucky,

    Did you happen to see United’s investment in emissions sequestration from a few months ago? I believe Kirby makes a point to say that the technology that will allow the core business (jetliner flying) to meet emissions targets is way off in the future, so this is the best path forward at this point in time. In fact, Elon Musk has backed carbon sequestration technology as a way toward carbon neutrality.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/01/12/climate-solutions-united-airlines/

    Point is, United recognizes that this doesn’t change a thing for the core business and eVTOL is just one area where United is investing toward a greener aviation sector. This shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum.

    Just my 2 cents.

  9. My first thought when reading this was wondering how/when these aircraft would be able to land at LAX. I commute regularly from the Bay Area to LAX, and pre-pandemic more often than not on flights to LA we would spend time in the penalty box to hold for flow control. I can’t imagine adding more aircraft to the mix is going to increase the speed/efficiency of travel.

  10. These electric helicopters will use far more electricity than an electric car to transport the same number of people to the airport. There is nothing green about that, unless 100% of the grid is sourced from green energy. It is not, and won’t be for some time.

  11. VTOLs, elites, an environmentally-ravaged Los Angeles? Throw in a rogue cop and you’ve got ‘Blade Runner’.

  12. I think the key is here: “Once the aircraft are in operation and have met Unitedā€™s operating and business requirements, United will acquire a fleet of up to 200 of these electric aircraft ”

    That’s a lot of non-specific conditions and basically means “we are not committing to anything on any timeline – but at some point in bright future we will operate a fleet of cool electric planes”

  13. Letā€™s hope UA uses their Brex cash account to pay for their order of 200 electric air taxis. You donā€™t know Brex? Brex is ā€œthe single best, new opportunity to earn points right nowā€.

  14. So here we have an airline that has lost billions of dollars, cancelled/delayed delivery of planes, is actively lobbying the US taxpayer for more money to stay afloat, and they dump money into this George Jetson contraption?

    I was in the UA lounge at ORD a few weeks ago. Some passenger was giving a CSM an ear full about something that happened. He went on to bring up the point that the airline is staying alive thanks to taxpayers like himself and in return this is how they thank him. I was glad to see him personal that aspect of it. Because it is citizens like us, as individuals or via our businesses, that are footing the bill for this crap.

  15. I find the concept interesting. Previously airlines have had city centre terminals where passengers could check in and then go to the airport, so this is just a modern version of that. BA predecessors used to have a terminal in Kensington and one at Victoria with a dedicated fleet of Routemasters with luggage trailers and there have been various airline helicopter transfers like Pan Am’s from their HQ and the BA/BCAL Airlink from Heathrow to Gatwick before the M25. So I feel like this could in principle work, maybe not for everyone but some, I do think though the time line is a bit unrealistic but so are nearly all of them in aviation.

  16. The executives that make the decision to invest in a startup are used to using a helicopter to get from the airport to business meetings. From their prospective $5 million is an acceptable price for such a vehicle. Even if they charge $700 round trip for connecting LAX to Hollywood or other locations. If they provide seamless ticketing and bag movements it could be a profitable venture. It makes a NYC to Hollywood or wherever for business meetings able to be done on commercial airlines rather than corporate jet while being time and cost effective.

    The announcement forgets that most people seeing it can’t relate to experiencing such luxuries
    Then again we aren’t the target audience.

    I still see it as a non story that will never pan out. It adds branding to the startup to help them get other investors.

  17. You’ve got to walk before you run, this lets the world dip it’s toes into a new technology, and allow it to advance over time.

  18. The energy density of Li-ion batteries is about one hundred times less than gasoline (12,700 Wh/kg or 8760 Wh/L if you prefer to think in volume instead of weight).

    Since the pollution from burning fuel in a plane is substantially the same as burning it in an automobile and it is of paramount importance to reduce weight in aircraft because payload decreases (and fuel consumed per passenger mile increases) with weight it makes no sense to even think about electric powered planes until essentially all land based sources of pollution have been reduced far below what exists now or is anticipated over the next 10-20 years first.

    Even if every car and truck were electric electric planes probably wouldn’t make sense because they represent a tiny percentage of overall pollution so unless the weight penalty for storing energy in batteries was reduced to zero it would still be better to burn fuel because the fuel being burned would be less then than an an electric plane with the same payload.

    Just think about the efforts Boeing and Airbus go to in order to get a few percentage increase in fuel efficiency because that is what airlines are demanding and you realize this is PR bull.

    The senior people at United aren’t idiots.

  19. It’s not like we’re even 20 years away from 50% of active cars being EVs. That said, this is a drop in the bucket relative to the harm jet engines cause once those passengers get to the airport. We need to tax the hell out of air travel to get people to stop traveling so much

  20. There are a number of foolish thoughts posted here. Unitedā€™s move is a pure political play. And a pretty smooth one at that. Currently a financially sound argument for electric airplanes does not exist. Someday ? Maybe. The bottom line is idiots willing to believe in man caused climate change are perfectly gullible to any flaky wish. My 66 years has witnessed a thousand Chicken Littles with their ā€œThe end is nearā€ bullshit. Instead of getting upset about manā€™s unending claim the ā€œthe end is nearā€, I find it more useful to just consider it for its entertainment value.

  21. This is gadgetbahn. It’s making a more energy efficient Chinook. Congrats. But rather than solving an energy problem it attempts to create one by inducing air taxi demand. There’s no way you make a flying quad copter or whatever that can carry 20 or 30 people and uses less energy than a similar sized electric bus. Those physics don’t check out.

  22. @Pat Cattin You can believe in climate change and still think electric aircraft make zero sense. It doesn’t take an engineer (even though I am one) to understand that a few percent difference in fuel efficiency matters the world to companies that seek to operate aircraft at a profit.

    People don’t care where the pollution comes from so the obvious answer if the goal is to reduce pollution is to clean up the meaningful sources that are the least expensive to fix. Even with all the improvements cars are a significant source of pollution, particularly localized pollution. Eliminating those emissions, or even just shifting them away from big, dense urban areas meaningful improves peoples lives. That’s why places such as New York, the San Francisco bay area and particularly Los Angeles are so interested on shifting to electric. Even if that electricity is generated by burning fuel it’s burned somewhere else and for now using natural gas which burns much cleaner than gasoline.

    Reducing the automobile emissions isn’t a crazy idea from a bunch of left wing nuts with no scientific training. Anyone who visited or lived in Los Angeles in the 1960’s through 1980’s can attest to how bad the air quality was. That car companies were able to reduce emissions is a testament to how much can be accomplished when people want or are forced to focus on a problem. But we are at the limit of what is possible using internal combustion and there is real value in having cities with a minimum of pollution not only from a health perspective but because clear air and blue skies are a source of great pleasure to those who live there.

    Electric airplanes, even if they made sense, aren’t going to meaningful contribute to that happening.

  23. Steve:
    What about the NOISE of these ????
    I don’t see any mention regarding the noise these electrical taxis are making and the interaction with existing air traffic control towers.
    Besides costing $5 million, they will need licensed pilots….

  24. I’ve driven an electric hybrid plug in for five years but I have no illusions about it producing less pollution since the electricity is created by burning fossil fuel. Only nuclear generated electricity would put a substantial debt in emissions. Yes, natural gas burns cleaner but many politicians want to stop fracking. And with pipelines being halted, what to do??

  25. Electric motors require batteries which must be charged frequently by electricity which is usually produced by power plants which burn fossil fuels in order to generate electricity for charging the batteries that power electric motors. Does that make good sense?

  26. Propellers whirl…motor spins them…electrical coils and magnets run motors…batteries supply the power…electrical plug recharges batteries…oh, where does the power come from?

    energy.ca.gov notes 34% of Californian electrical energy in 2018 came from renewable resources. That means 66% did not.

  27. @Ulf Topf the only advantage of an electric aircraft is potentially lower and more important, less bothersome, noise.

    I doubt there is enough demand to warrant an airplane that only makes sense to feed passengers to large well served commercial airports from small airports where well-heeled local residents oppose additional use due to increased noise might be Ok with a plane like this but these guys seem to think there is a market so long as it’s private money at risk no harm for them to have a go at it.

    It seems like the thinking is this is more of a replacement for helicopters than an airplane. Range is short and it can’t quite land anywhere, but doesn’t require a full length runway either. Maybe they image a new kind of facility down the road. Sort of a park and fly where you leave your car, maybe even check your bags, clear security and go straight to the secure area at the airport.

    Sounds sweet, but it isn’t clear there a market for it big enough to justify the investment and lack of economics.

  28. If it had not been for the Toyota Prius and other Hybrid cars back in late 20th/early 21st c. , we would still be driving with fossil fuels. Is there any car maker that doesn’t make electric cars now? How can we assume that electric air travel would not follow suit? Maybe not efficient now, but as stated in a previous comment: It’s innovation!

  29. It’s a great idea you’re just nit-picking. So we shouldn’t convert anything to electric because there will be electric cars?

  30. The economical play here is quite simple. You can create a unified airside experience for dense metro areas while cutting down some normal flights for secondary airports.

    Here’s an example. United can operate a bunch of these between airports like BWI and their hubs like Dulles. This could actually lower their actual footprint at BWI. You could probably cut 1 of the 4x daily (in pre-pandemic times) flights between BWI-IAH.

    This could be an interesting play for options like EWR-JFK, SJC/OAK-SFO, HOU-IAH, MDW-ORD, etc.

  31. What happens when the trees and plants dont have enough co2 for photosynthesis? Myself I think the push for carbon reduction may be a problem in the future. And the companies selling carbon credits? Are disengenuous. Carl

  32. What about the thousands of united employees they furloughed, brought back for a couple months just to furlough a second time. Seems like united needs to take care of their employees and work on declining customer service before investing taxpayer support funds into an unproven technology that is way further away from reality than they think. United is more preoccupied with environmental virtue signaling rather than taking care of their own.

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