Are You Ready for Electric Aviation?

Gaël Le Bris, C.M., P.E.

Electric aircraft and hydrogen technologies are on the horizon. Several prototypes have flown over the past few years. The first certifications of fuel-cell electric aircraft with less than 20 seats for air taxi operations or regional flights may be complete by the end of 2022. In 10 years or so, these aircraft could account for up to 5% of the U.S. fleet. Because electric aviation promises lower costs and lead-free operations, it might also be a path to the revival of private aircraft ownership and “recreational” general aviation. Additionally, this is a unique opportunity to accelerate the transition of aviation toward carbon-free technologies in order to deliver Fly Net Zero—the commitment of the global aviation industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Gaël Le Bris, C.M., P.E. is a senior aviation planner and senior technical principal with WSP USA who holds two master’s degrees in aviation. He supervises aviation system and airport planning projects, and provides expertise in aviation engineering, operations and safety in the U.S. and abroad. Le Bris is a committee member of Airport Consultants Council, SAE International and the Transportation Research Board. Recently, he was the principal investigator for “ACRP Research Report 236: Prepare Your Airport for Electric Aircraft and Hydrogen Technologies.”

Electric aircraft will create new opportunities for airports. These aerial vehicles are significantly quieter than conventional aircraft, they have vertical or short takeoff and landing capabilities, and they produce no carbon emissions. They can access constrained airports and turn several general aviation facilities into small community transportation hubs. However, our industry knows that innovative aerospace technologies alone are not enough to make a viable transportation system. The new type of mobility unlocked by electric aviation, also known as advanced air mobility, needs to address airport compatibility, including capacity and delay, infrastructure and utility development, safety and security, funding, and local community dynamics.

 Airports and their stakeholders will need to provide compatible electric chargers for aircraft. Depending on the electric aviation activity and operational requirements, airports may need to provide up to multiple megawatts of electric power per aircraft. This is not a minor challenge for airports, especially smaller general aviation facilities. Technically speaking, implementing these electric aircraft chargers is comparable to installing 400Hz ground support power units. To address this demand and ensure resiliency, airports might have to get more involved with the supply, distribution and perhaps generation of electric power on their property. Solutions include optimizing existing resources with smart power management, and the development of new capacity with onsite generation via a microgrid approach.

For the larger fuel-cell electric aircraft processing hydrogen that could start flying by 2025, aviation-specific supply chains need to be developed because this fuel is novel in our industry. The initial needs for gaseous hydrogen might be addressed using current logistics solutions (e.g., trucking) or purpose-built solutions, such as aircraft-ready containers or pods filled at a production plant and delivered to ground handlers for loading into aircraft. In the future, the emergence of the hydrogen economy serving other users—including hydrogen jet and turboprop aircraft that may emerge beyond 2035—will warrant the creation of mass distribution systems that aviation will benefit from.

Adapting our airports and aviation systems to these technologies and the new demand they may create will require investments. Most of the existing funding mechanisms for aviation facilities do not provide for the aircraft charging infrastructure, the aviation hydrogen supply chain and vertiport facilities. Also, it is noticeable that current versions of the FAA Terminal Area Forecast and the Aerospace Forecast do not take electric aircraft and advanced air mobility (AAM) into consideration. The AAM Coordination and Leadership Act, which is under consideration by the Congress, would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to create an interagency working group to identify opportunities and needs, propose actions to address the needs, and support the emergence of AAM to maintain U.S. leadership in aerospace.

Overall, there was a lack of airport-centered technical literature on these matters. The good news is that practice-ready guidance is available in ACRP Research Report 236: Prepare Your Airport for Electric Aircraft and Hydrogen Technologies. This guidebook from the Transportation Research Board features extensive material about accounting for electric aircraft in the planning, design and operations of aviation facilities. It also includes discussions about policy needs and provides tools for airside and utility planning.

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