United’s regional future: It’s Electric!

A rendering of the Heart Aerospace ES-19 aircraft in United Express livery
Will the ES-19 soon be flying in United Express colors? The companies hope to make it happen by 2026, though that’s a pretty aggressive timeline

United Airlines Ventures (UAV), the eponymous corporate venture capital arm of the carrier might be seen as prone to flights of fancy. Its two major recent investments include eVTOL craft to help passengers skip over traffic on their way to almost certainly ecologically irresponsible flight in a supersonic aircraft. By those standards this week’s news comes very much as a down-to-earth surprise. The company will invest in Heart Aerospace, including a conditional order for 100 ES-19 electric aircraft, potentially joining the fleet of regional partner Mesa Airlines as early as 2026.

We’re looking forward to beginning our work with Heart, so that, together, we can scale the availability of electric airliners and use them for passenger flights within the next five years.

The ES-19 aims to carry 19 passengers up to 250 miles on a single charge. It is unclear if that range includes typical diversion reserves that traditional aircraft use.

The company says it will use batteries similar to those used in electric cars, lowering the challenges in that portion of the product development cycle.

It is the largest electric aircraft aiming for a near-term entry into service and faces plenty of challenges – both in how it fits into a major airline route network and the underlying aircraft technology – in reaching that goal.

Where will it fly?

The carrier mentions “more than 100 of United’s regional routes out of most of its hubs” as potentially supporting the electric aircraft. The company specifically names routes, including:

  • San Francisco to Modesto, a 78 mile route not currently in the schedule but that operated until 2014; and,

  • O’Hare to Purdue (LAF), a 119 mile route also not in the schedule and with no clear evidence of previous operations.

The likelihood of adding 19-seater service at San Francisco or Newark is offset by limits on slots, gates, and other resources at those airports. Just two weeks ago when the company announced its order of 270 planes from Boeing and Airbus it suggested that the larger A321neo was needed at those airports because any growth would come from increase in gauge rather than adding more flights.

Other than a few dozen Essential Air Service routes, which by definition are generally further away from hub airports, the number of smaller planes flying commercially in the US is spectacularly small. Cape Air operates many with its Cessna and Tecnam aircraft, and is also talking about electrifying those planes.

Seeing a major airline revert to the smaller props, rather than continue to increase gauge, is a bit of a head scratcher.

The existing routes

Other hubs stand more of a chance, but the number of existing routes that make sense is limited. Assuming the plane can swap batteries at the out-station, there are about 100 total routes currently scheduled at less than 250 miles.

Sub 250 mile routes from O’HareMap generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Sub 250 mile routes from DenverMap generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Sub 250 mile routes from HoustonMap generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Sub 250 mile routes from Los Angeles and San FranciscoMap generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Sub 250 mile routes from Newark and DullesMap generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Many of these markets are too large for a 19-seat plane to make sense unless the frequencies were significantly higher. Depending on the number of planes and airport congestion that could happen, but it seems generally less likely.

And if the planes need to make the 250 mile range last for a round trip then the options become significantly reduced.

Electric aircraft are happening now—the technology is already here. We couldn’t be prouder to be partnering with United, Mesa and BEV on taking our ES-19 aircraft to market. I can’t imagine a stronger coalition of partners to advance our mission to electrify short-haul air travel. – Anders Forslund CEO of Heart Aerospace

United must also consider the type of traffic it is attracting to its hubs. The carrier is in the process of retiring roughly 200 single-cabin, 50-seat aircraft. This move is driven in large part by demand for premium seats from the smaller airports via a hub to a long-haul flight. The 19-seat plane will not offer that premium experience. And while it shouldn’t matter on the short hop into the hub, it might.

Possible future routes

The two routes the company mentioned are not currently operated. They’re also just long enough that the company’s eVTOL plans won’t have the legs (wings??) to make the trip. United could very well try to add even more small market airports near its hubs to the map, feeding into its growing mainline route structure. The company could bring back the shuttle to Ellington Field on the south side of Houston, for example.

There are scores more airports around the country that could fit that description, though getting them ramped up for commercial service might be a challenge. Then again, at the smaller size the planes could theoretically operate outside traditional TSA security, easing the burden to bring stations online.

Whether passengers are willing to take that shorter flight and connect rather than just drive to the hub airport will vary by market, of course. Or perhaps electric bus service using the Landline model could more readily operate, providing a multi-modal transportation option within existing infrastructure.

Another possibility would be to skip over the hubs. United (and other majors) have dabbled in this segment since the pandemic began, chasing the passengers who want non-stop flights in secondary (or tertiary) markets. That can work with today’s jets and their range, but with a 250 mile limit the opportunities to grab market share away from people who could just drive instead would seem quite limited.

Why it might not happen

Picking routes for the new planes is a fun game, but there’s a very real risk that none of this comes to fruition, at least not on the currently proposed timeline.

Going from renderings to a certified aircraft in five years is a monumental task. The company will need to secure FAA certification of the power plant and the battery technology. On top of that, the ES-19 will also require certification of the complete aircraft.

The battery system is likely the biggest challenge to certification today. The FAA has plenty of experience with what happens when a battery decides to melt through a 787 fuselage and is likely keen to avoid that situation again.

And the risk is even more pronounced when it is the only power source on board, not an auxiliary system. Given what the world knows of those fires in car crashes, securing the FAA certification could be even more challenging.

And while there is plenty of discussion around electric aircraft, many in the industry are skeptical that the necessary power-to-weight ratio can be realized to bring these flights to life. Of course, many of these skeptics are also heavily committed to the hydrogen-powered future of flight, so their position comes with a bit of self-interest as well.

United and Mesa stated that the order and operating plan will be conditional on the ES-19 meeting (undisclosed) safety, business, and operating standards. That leaves plenty of wiggle room for the company in the years ahead. But in the interim plenty of people are going to have fun plotting what airports these new planes might fly to with United’s globe on the tail.

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