Last week, we described how rapidly improving battery technology will lead to a surge in electric flying, similar to what we are now experiencing with the electric car. But as the electric car is about improving an existing transportation system, electrification in aviation may well lead to a whole new system for short and medium-haul mobility.
This is not because bigger and bigger electric airplanes are coming, but mainly because small electric airplanes will be able to fly further and further and, above all, will become much cheaper. Think of a plane for five, ten, or twenty people with one pilot, which can be controlled remotely in case of emergency. These planes have a great advantage in that they can not only use larger airports, but also small regional airports. In total, the Netherlands has about twenty of these; in Europe, there are almost two thousand.
Those local airports are much easier for most people to reach than a major airport or an international train station. And because of the implicit scalability of aviation, you can directly connect all those thousands of points in Europe with a demand-driven and efficient transportation system without much additional investment, even for a small group of travelers. Just imagine business travel to all of Europe from the Budel or Teuge airports. Or within a few hours on your skis in the Alps from Breda or Drachten airport. And Arnemuiden airport as the tourist gateway to Zeeland for all of Europe.
Small electric airplanes can be used to connect regional airports. It is a much more effective alternative for many European flights, but also for many long car and train journeys. And that’s fine. Because in almost all areas, electric flying is the better alternative. You have no emissions of nitrogen oxides, no annoying contrails, no particulate matter from wear and tear on tires, road surfaces, overhead wires, or brakes. In addition, unlike aircraft with internal combustion engines, electric aircraft can be relatively easily equipped with multiple propellers, which can therefore rotate at a slower speed. This limits the noise pollution at takeoff, similar to the nuisance of a passing truck on the highway.
It will feel a bit like a private jet for everyone. But cheaper, more sustainable, more comfortable, safer, and over the entire route much quieter than the alternative. And, perhaps most importantly, without the huge space requirements of a train or car. And without massive investments and operating subsidies. It will be a few years before we get to that point, and some of the techniques have yet to prove themselves in practice. But actually, you should turn around the burden of proof: you will have to be very sure that electric flying will not succeed to still invest in any other form of medium distance transport.
Maarten Steinbuch and Carlo van de Weijer are alternately writing this weekly column, originally published (in Dutch) in FD. Did you like it? There’s more to enjoy: a book with a selection of these columns has just been published by 24U and distributed by Lecturis.