Should hybrid planes be big or small?

by | Feb 19, 2021 | Articles

Hybrid planes are coming. Maybe it’ll be a hydrogen fuel cell or maybe it’ll be something powered by traditional fuel sources (or even bio fuel). The bigger question is the question of bigness itself: Will they start big or will they start small?

The question of why has been settled, whether you believe in climate change or not. The question of when is debatable, but everyone has seemed to coalesce around “not tomorrow but we’re also not waiting 50 years.” Faradair, the Bio Electric-Hybrid Aircraft (BEHA) company out of Britain thinks they’ll have an aircraft in service in five years.

What’s interesting about the Faradair vehicle, other than it looks like something that could actually fly, is that they’re focused on the smaller end of the market. Their M1H BEHA concept uses a pusher propfan powered by electric motors and fueled by biofuels (but they say this could be a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle or even a pure electric at some point). The exact engineering of it is less important that the business case it serves.

Before the pandemic, regional airlines and smaller airports were in trouble. The pandemic has made this worse. There are still people who want to fly out of non-major hubs and even if we ignore the environmental impact, finding a way to serve these customers more efficiently with a lower operating cost is a great concept.

Faradair concept rendering (Courtesy of Faradair)

The plane is obviously designed to serve these customers. The triple-box wing allows for short takeoff and landing. As with all concepts, lightweight materials hep the vehicle achieve a much higher range. The cabin is designed to hold 18 passengers, which is small, and that means in order to be profitable the plan has to be either to charge a lot (this is where charter flights make sense) or operate frequently.

Big hydrogen planes or hybrid planes will come eventually, but turning around that market will probably take a lot longer. On a panel about sustainable aircraft held by FlightGlobal this month the hopefulness around environmental improvement was tempered by the reality of the modern aviation industry.

“Even if I put on my rosiest of rose-tinted spectacles, we are still going to have 20,000-plus conventional aircraft which we are still going to be delivering to satisfy the broader market needs for decades to come,” said one of the panelists.

This is why I like starting at the lower end of the market where, frankly, the market is failing. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it doesn’t apply where things are obviously broken.