Announced on August 28th, Scandinavia’s largest regional airline Widerøe has gone into partnership with UK engineering firm Rolls Royce to develop an electric aircraft for the future. With an aging fleet of turboprop planes and a network of STOL airports, Widerøe says that Norway is the perfect testbed for a future proof, climate-friendly short hop innovation.
A partnership with Rolls Royce
According to the press release, Rolls Royce and Widerøe plan to research zero-emissions aviation. The aim of the program is to develop a concept all-electric aircraft, which will serve as a replacement for the small turboprop aircraft market worldwide.
The partnership aims to realize Widerøe’s ambitions to replace and fully electrify its fleet of regional aircraft, a mission which the carrier has targeted to achieve by 2030. Apparently Widerøe has been searching for a partner to help with this goal for some time, and have found the perfect solution in Rolls Royce. Andreas Aks, Chief Strategy Officer at Widerøe commented in the press release,
“We are aiming to have emission-free commercial flights in the air by 2030. Partnering with Rolls-Royce for this research programme puts us one step closer to reaching that goal,”
The project has reportedly already secured support from Innovation Norway, a governmental funding stream. Although the amount of funding has not been revealed, Rolls Royce say it will support the project for two years.
Banking on electric planes
As long ago as April 2018, Widerøe made clear its intentions to use an electric plane in the future. Speaking to Forbes at the time, Stein Nilsen, Widerøe’s Chief Executive, said,
“I really believe that we will have a major technology shift in this turboprop segment, and I think, in fact, there could be a possibility for flying all-electric … in the timeframe around 2030.”
Around 40% of Widerøe’s network is made up of Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes within Norway. Due to the short flying distances, short runways and low demand, these routes are currently operated mainly by Bombardier Dash 8 Q100s and Q200s; tiny turboprop planes with around 39 seats.
As most of these planes are approaching or exceeding 25 years of age, their time with the carrier is limited. Although Widerøe claim to have extended their service life to keep them operational until the 2030s, there is nothing in the market that could fill in the gap left by these aging airframes.
A common problem?
Widerøe isn’t the only airline to have a strong reliance on short takeoff and landing turboprop aircraft. Many airlines the world over are faced with the challenge of providing a service to remote areas, and as such rely on small propeller-driven aircraft to get them in and out.
Binter Canarias is one such airline, with a fleet of ATRs delivering the majority of its inter-island services. Air Tahiti only operate turboprops, while Air Creebec, operating one of the world’s shortest routes, are reliant on 17 Dash-8s with an average age of 29 years.
And it’s not just small airlines either. Air Canada’s Express arm is cited by Anna Aero as being the largest operator of turboprops in the world, with 84 Dash-8’s of various sizes, some of which are more than 30 years old. In fact, if you look at any location around the world where people live in remote, inaccessible places, you’re sure to find some old turboprop aircraft chugging its way in and out of the town.
With no direct replacement for these aging airframes, carriers are going to be looking sternly at the aviation industry to see what they can come up with. ATR has mulled making a STOL version of its ATR-42 to fill this niche, but perhaps there’s an even better way.
The electric revolution
While many are skeptical that an all-electric aircraft is even possible, Israeli developer Eviation is setting out to prove otherwise. Alice is the world’s first all-electric commuter plane and, certification dependent, will begin flying soon-ish with US-based Cape Air.
Although Cape Air’s requirements are somewhat different to those of Widerøe, needing only nine seats rather than 50, Alice will certainly set a precedent and debunk the naysayers claims that electric planes don’t work. Should the partnership between Widerøe and Rolls Royce be a fruitful one, perhaps these ancient turboprops will finally find a cleaner, greener replacement.