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Electric Aircraft Engineer Weighs In On The Future Of Flying

Nov 12, 2019

An Ampaire-designed electric aircraft takes flight.
Credit Courtesy of Ampaire

 

The aviation industry makes up about 2% of global carbon emissions, and that number is set to grow. Wednesday night, the Aspen Institute is hosting a discussion about the future of the industry, including ways that sustainably-powered aircraft could change the flying experience.

The conversation will be held from 4-7 p.m. at the Doerr-Hosier Center. 

Pete Savagian is the senior vice president of engineering at Ampaire, a company developing electric aircraft.

Before taking part in Wednesday night’s discussion, Savagian spoke with Aspen Public Radio about the future of flying. 

Alex Hager: Should consumers and travelers expect to see any significant changes to the way that commercial flying looks in the next few decades?

 

Pete Savagian
Credit Courtesy of Ampaire

Pete Savagian: Yeah, I think in the next few decades for sure. It's one of the things my company, Ampaire, is working on, to make flying more direct and by reducing the cost of flight. One of the nice things about electrifying aviation, replacing petroleum with energy that comes off the grid from a variety of sources and is stored on the aircraft in the form of high-energy batteries. 

One of the real benefits of that is lowering the cost of flight and therefore can make economic routes that ordinarily you wouldn't take. So point-to-point routes. So instead of traveling from a city to a larger city, a hub, and then taking off from that hub to the final destination, instead go point to point, save time and save fuel, getting the people or their stuff directly and more closely to where they want to be rather than take all the side routes, the layovers, the possibility for additional lost time in the flight. 

AH: Where do you see the biggest or most immediate changes coming from here? Who's gonna lead the way on this? Is it going to be governments, is it going to be activists or is it going to be private sector manufacturing?

PS: I think it's a combination of private sector work along with governments and government support for electrification. So to electrify an aircraft, it's undoubtedly a big technological undertaking. It's something our little company is working on. But there are many other companies, big and small in aviation that are working to electrify and find their entry point. This is a thing that can start today but unfolds over decades as technologies improve. 

But to electrify aircraft, we need to electrify airports. Airports are a tremendous national resource. They're located near city centers. They're typically mile long strips of well-maintained asphalt that have a great air traffic control system to regulate that is largely provided for by the federal government. It's a great resource and it's under-utilized.

In order to electrify aviation, though, it needs the support of the governments around those airports. Particularly the local governments and the electric power utility commissions and the electric power providing companies. 

AH: Do you get the sense that for the major stakeholders in this, there's a significant appetite to institute some of these changes? When you're talking about airports and major airlines and the people who fly on those major airlines, are they ready to sink the time, energy and money into making some of these changes?

PS: Well, some are and some aren't, but I think we see a growing demand for it. I think there's a growing awareness, a deeper awareness of the import of global warming and CO2's role in it, and aviation's role in CO2 and global warming. And this is an unmitigated area. We see in Europe where maybe environmental consciousness is a little higher, that governments, like for instance, Sweden is taking a very active role. And in Norway, the same. In Norway they say by 2040, they want all of their aircraft to be fully electric for domestic flights, which would be quite an achievement. So governments are becoming more active and the people are more active. 

There's a new word in German called flugscham. And in Sweden, flygskam. And it means flying shame. It means that people are making conscious choices about their carbon footprint and their selection of their mode of travel. And they recognize that traveling by air significantly increases the amount of CO2. 

I think the will to support the infrastructure will compliment the business ventures and the technology growth that bring us to electrify aircraft. And we see the beginnings of that all around the world, maybe most acutely in some areas in Europe, but indeed in the United States. The fact that we're having this public conversation on the decarbonization of aviation is really a case in point.