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Part one in an analytical series examining the future of electric flying, away from the unrealistic hype and the reflexive naysayers.

  • Commercial electric aircraft will be defined by their batteries – which have yet to meet defined required metrics for commercial air transport, at any scale.
  • The viable market size for the current breed of electric aircraft is vastly different than advertised.
  • Even though over 50% of the world’s flights are within the range of small commercial aircraft, the true market size for the small electric segment is less than 1% of the overall market.

Electric flight is not new. The possibilities of piloted electric flight were first realized on October 21, 1973, with a 14-minute flight of the Militky MB-E1 powered glider in Austria. The aircraft carried a nickel-cadmium battery along with a 10 kW motor to power the glider to a maximum altitude of almost 1,300 feet, proving heavier-than-air electric flight was possible, if then, impractical.

Nearly 50 years later, battery technology has improved greatly, introducing even higher energy densities and lower costs through lithium-ion batteries. The half-century of advancements has made strides in the practicality of electric flight, allowing small aircraft such as the certified two-seat trainer Pipestrel Alpha Echo to be possible.

Related: Embraer has to design an airplane today for the propulsion of tomorrow

With the world’s attention turning to carbon emissions and their effects on climate change, electric aircraft are now being looked to in a commercial transportation application as a replacement for the age-old fossil fuel-burning engines. Over 500 electric aircraft projects and startups have entered the space of this nascent category to produce a certified electric aircraft with the promise of substantial economic advantages and massive market sizes.

Electric aircraft are coming. The technical requirements for small battery-powered commercial aircraft will be established by regulators and ultimately met, and tickets on electric aircraft will soon be available for purchase. As a sign of the progress made, attention must now shift to how economical these aircraft can truly be, and what portion of the current carbon footprint they can replace. As countless technologies have proven in the past, the ability to achieve and the economic reality of achieving it are two very different equations.

The future of aviation demands a necessary combination of optimism and sobriety. In an effort to take stock of the potential for new propulsion technologies in aviation, TAC Analysis seeks to more completely detail the market opportunity and economic picture required to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions for which the segment is striving.

Related: Electric flying advances to the mainstream as Tecnam joins the race

This TAC Analysis assesses the market potential for small electric commercial aircraft, quantifying the need for small regional aircraft up to 19 seats, the commercial aviation segment first to be offered electric aircraft through advanced offerings from new manufacturers such as Eviation, Heart Aerospace and Tecnam, as well as a spate of retrofit modifications of existing models like Cessna’s Grand Caravan and De Havilland Beaver. (Notably, this excludes the helicopter and eVTOL markets, as well as the debate whether the two are, in fact, separate markets).

Assuming the manufacturers can surpass the formidable technical and certification challenges ahead, we look beyond, to the market size of the small, battery-powered electric airliner based on the economics promised, as well as those expected.

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Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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