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New Hybrid Regional Aircraft Concept Released
How will the new concept fit into the already complex realm of regional aircraft?
Dutch aerospace manufacturer Maeve Aerospace has unveiled a concept for a new 80-seat hybrid-electric airplane. The regional jet is starting development, and the company hopes it will enter service in 2031.
Maeve Aerospace says the aircraft, designated as an M80, will have a 40% higher energy efficiency compared to current models. It will have an 800 nautical mile (1,482 kilometers) range and a cruising speed of 400 knots at its service ceiling. As the crow flies, that’s roughly the distance from New York City to Montgomery, Ala. or from Los Angeles to Casper, Wyo.
Ultimately, Maeve believes that it “has optimized the aircraft concept to attain best-in-class specifications with regards to passenger capacity, range, lead time, and energy needed for implementation.”
The 40% efficiency boost will lower trip costs by 25% compared to other similarly-sized regional jets and a seat-mile cost 20% below other turboprops.
The aircraft will be a clean-sheet design with swept, high wings and new turboprop engines that will run on traditional fuels but be supplemented by batteries during takeoff and climb. Maeve said that this model is more realistic than the all-electric version it proposed in 2021, which would not have performed to industry requirements.
Maeve is in talks with engine makers and says a deal should be set early next year. It says it has strong interest from manufacturers and that it hopes to fly a testbed with the hybrid engines in 2024.
The M80 is designed to fly at altitudes of up to 35,000 feet. This is five to six thousand feet lower than most turbofan-powered regional jets, but it is also likely that Maeve’s aircraft will fly consistently shorter routes and will not need to climb as high anyway.
There will be ten battery packs in the M80’s cargo hold. Maeve says it will design the aircraft to ensure there is enough space in those cargo holds for bags and clearance for the batteries.
The batteries will need to be replaced every 1,800 cycles or annually, whichever comes first. Maeve says it plans to design batteries to charge on the ground but that this may change based on feedback from airlines.
Competing Efficient Aircraft
This is far from the only attempt to bring an electric aircraft to market. Other companies, most notably Heart Aerospace, are pursuing hybrid-electric aircraft development to tackle aviation’s carbon emissions. It is, of course, quite normal for proposed aircraft to be scrapped before even getting off the ground, so one of these aircraft may not even make it to production. But, nevertheless, there is a notable push to get hybrid aircraft to market quickly and safely in order to capitalize on fears from airlines and governments alike that aviation will be a driving factor of climate change in the decades to come.
Electric aircraft are far from the only solution in terms of lowering aviation emissions. In fact, some argue that electric aircraft have the toughest road ahead since batteries can deliver only limited power for their weight penalty, meaning airlines would need to choose between using bigger batteries for longer range and being able to carry enough weight (passengers, cargo, and crew) that would guarantee that flights are profitable and safe.
This is why Maeve turned away from all-electric aircraft. A combination of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) and battery power may provide a more reasonable compromise for airlines to carry enough payload while getting good efficiency. Though SAF is currently considered too expensive and energy-intensive to be scalable to commercial aviation’s current demand, it is highly likely that, by the time the M80 comes to market, there will be innovations that make SAF a more reasonable option.
Regardless of the status of SAF, though, the M80 might be an easy sell to airlines climate-wise. Since current innovation focuses on running today’s aircraft on various types of fuels, the engines made for the M80 will likely be able to run on either SAF or traditional jet fuels. Maeve says that it wants to certify the M80 with hydrogen-based SAF, but the crossover still exists.
“To my knowledge, there are currently no alternatives in development that are equally sustainable, cost effective, and match the operational needs of airlines and airports. If there are, I would applaud them, because we need more of these realistic solutions to become sustainable,” said Martin Nuesseler, the Chief Technology Officer at Maeve.
Airline Scope Clauses
Left out of this conversation so far is a discussion of the M80’s role in the aviation market. The Dornier 328 and ATR 72 are both being developed to be more efficient in order to make them more cost-effective for airlines looking to modernize their fleet.
An important aspect that must be considered when comparing these aircraft is the scope clauses that are struck between regional airlines and their mainline partners in the United States and around the world. The agreements dictate the size of aircraft, and the number of aircraft frequencies, that mainline companies like American, Delta, and United may outsource to regional carriers such as SkyWest and Republic. The agreements further say that any aircraft bigger than those outlined in the scope clauses and any flights in excess of the agreed-upon number, regardless of the size of aircraft, must be operated by crews directly employed by the mainline carriers.
Many proposed regional airliners, perhaps most notably Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet program, have been canceled before reaching production because they could not be reliably profitable if they were forced to operate with only the number of seats the scope clauses allow.
Maeve’s Market Niche
However, Maeve’s M80, at up to 84 seats, fits perfectly into the market of the biggest regional jets that operate under these scope clauses. Maeve says the aircraft carriers 76 people in a two-class configuration, meaning it would not be difficult for these efficient airliners to fit into the fleets of major regional airlines looking to retire aging Embraer E175s and Bombardier CRJ-900s as part of a complete fleet renewal.
Similarly, all of Maeve’s feasible competitors aim to fill this exact market niche. It doesn’t hurt that this is for now the biggest size for which hybrid-electric power is feasible considering battery technology. But manufacturers can tweak their designs with scope clauses in mind to make their aircraft more marketable.
Still, Maeve’s road will not be easy. Two notable competitors to its design are being developed by Dornier and ATR as upgrades to airframes with proven track records. This may end up being Maeve’s biggest challenge to reaching mass market: completely new aircraft are hard to sell until they’re proven reliable. It is not unreasonable to expect that today’s regional airlines will look to established manufacturers who already have strong connections with part suppliers and have previously developed aircraft that to this day perform well in versatile conditions.
Maeve’s biggest competitor may end up being ATR, who is working on upgrading its popular line of regional airliners to be 20% more fuel efficient than present models and emit 50% less CO2 than traditional regional jets. ATR says that its hybrid aircraft’s emissions will be near zero when 100 percent SAF is used.
Maeve may not try to compete directly with the ATR. Rather, the company says that it wants to avoid the niche that the ATR has long established and find a new area that it can take hold of in the industry.
“Our aircraft is more efficient than the ATR, but the ATR has an unbeatable cost structure in its niche,” said Nuesseler in an interview with Aviation Week. He adds that the ATR performs quite well on the shorter sectors it is currently flown on, such as Silver Airways’ flights within Florida and around the American southeast.
Innovations in Sustainable Aircraft
Maeve plans to open a new “innovation hub” at the Oberpfaffenhofen Airport in Germany to continue aircraft development. It will call in experts to the plant and has praised the aviation innovation already occurring at Oberpfaffenhofen.
“Such a clean-sheet aircraft design requires the best team in the industry and a fast ramp-up of the organization, which is why several aviation experts have joined Maeve in this next development phase,” Maeve said in a statement.
“These experts will be based at Maeve’s new location at Oberpfaffenhofen Airport near Munich. Oberpfaffenhofen is a breeding ground for innovation and home to many aviation companies,” the manufacturer continued.
Innovation in aviation sustainability has accelerated in recent years. Companies like United Airlines and the Air France-KLM group have made significant investments in SAF companies, and United has further invested in electric air taxis to carry passengers from major hubs to destinations in city centers without relying on traditional helicopters or cars.
Recently, Gulfstream and Virgin Atlantic have both completed transatlantic fuels powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuels. Even Airbus has taken steps toward developing aircraft powered by hydrogen, one of the most promising sustainable fuels.
Governments are taking action to limit aviation emissions as well. France has been one of the most outspoken governments: in the past few years, it banned all domestic flights that can be covered in under two and a half hours by train (except those used to connect to international destinations), and it has since raised taxes on aviation in order to increase rail funding while simultaneously discouraging people from flying.
Whether governments will offer airlines subsidies to invest in hybrid aircraft or use SAF has yet to be seen. However, if it is clear that airlines will be unable to meet their net-zero targets by the 2050 deadline to cut emissions before doing permanent planetary damage, governments may become all the more aggressive to limit aviation’s reach, offer more sustainability subsidies, or both.
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