By Taylor Rains
United Airlines Invests in Heart Aerospace’s Electric Aircraft
United Airlines is eager for innovation. After committing to an order of 15 of Boom’s ‘Overture’ jets earlier this year, the company has now invested in electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace. The Sweden-based business is developing the ES-19, an electric-powered plane, that is expected to decarbonate regional air travel. Production should be complete within the next five years, with the aircraft taking flight by 2026.
Heart Aerospace has partnered with United Airlines, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Mesa Airlines to fund and develop the ES-19, an innovative product that will eliminate operational emissions and decrease the aviation industry’s carbon footprint.
Both United and Mesa have conditionally agreed to order 100 of the jets, given it meets each company’s safety, business and operating standards. The investment comes from United’s dedicated sustainability fund, called United Airlines Ventures (UAV), which is focused on innovative technologies that reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously improving the customer experience and revolutionizing how the industry operates.
Michael Leskinen, UAV’s President and United’s Vice President of Corp Development and Investor Relations, said, “Breakthrough Energy Ventures is the leading voice of investors who are supporting clean-energy technology creation. We share their view that we have to build companies who have real potential to change how industries operate and, in our case, that means investing in companies like Heart Aerospace who are developing a viable electric airliner.”
He continued, “We recognize that customers want even more ownership of their own carbon emissions footprint. We’re proud to partner with Mesa Air Group to bring electric aircraft to our customers earlier than any other US airliner. Mesa’s long serving CEO, Jonathan Ornstein, has shown visionary leadership in the field of electric-powered flight.”
BEV and UAV are the first of several investors contributing to Heart Aerospace. The agreements are expected to speed up the ES-19’s development and get it into service as early as 2026.
According to Heart Aerospace, the 19-seater airliner will be powered by four electric motors and batteries in place of jet engines and jet fuel. The design will ensure the aircraft has zero carbon emissions, making it desirable for United’s carbon reduction strategy. It is expected to fly up to 250 miles at a top speed of 215 knots and a cruise speed of 180 knots. While these low speeds may be a concern, the aircraft can fly into small, less crowded airports with runways as short as 2,461 feet, shortening the passenger door-to-door journey time.
Heart Aerospace CEO Anders Forslund said, “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.”
Once in service, the ES-19 could serve more than 100 of United’s regional routes to and from its hubs. Last month, the carrier announced it would be retiring about 200 regional aircraft that do not fit into its “United Next” plan. It’s possible the new aircraft will fly short hops in the Midwest, which is where a majority of the airline’s current regional jets operate. Potential routes include Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Purdue University Airport and San Francisco International Airport to Modesto City-County Airport.
Leskinen explained, “We expect the short-haul regional air travel market to play a key role in the evolution of the electric aircraft. As battery technology improves, larger-gauge aircraft should become viable but we’re not going to wait to begin the journey. That’s why 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.”
In 2019, aviation accounted for roughly 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While this decreased in 2020 due to the pandemic, experts worry that this year’s travel surge is going to cause an emission rebound. Demand for air travel has outpaced sustainable technology, and the solution for carbon reduction is underdeveloped. However, United and many airlines across the globe understand the negative environmental impact of jet fuel, and dozens have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
United’s investment in the ES-19 is part of the company’s effort to reach its 2050 net-zero goal. It plans to do this without any carbon offsets, which is the industry’s primary method of emission reduction. However, these schemes do not always meet the desired impact, hence United’s decision to shy away from it. Instead, the company is focused on innovation through aircraft efficiency and biofuels. For example, its supersonic Overture jet is expected to run 100% on sustainable aviation fuel (SAV) from day one. United committed to purchase 200 electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft from air mobility company Archer earlier this year.
The airline also invests in companies, like Heart Aerospace, that want to create products that are good for customers, employees and the planet. While the introduction of the ES-19 is years away, United’s investment will hopefully catapult the industry into a new era of sustainable air travel.