Thumb through an airline map from the 1970s or 1980s and something is immediately striking: The web of short routes feeding major hubs is deep. Stauning, Denmark? Terre Haute, Indiana? Both used to have commercial air service but do not today.
The disappearance of these regional routes is multifold. The economics of flying has become more expensive. Commercial aircraft keep getting larger, making smaller cities less attractive to serve. And people increasingly live in cities, making service to smaller dots less and less attractive as travel demand has moved elsewhere.
“There is a massive gap,” Electron Aerospace and Aviation Co-Founder and CEO Josef Mouris said. “You see the ranges that airlines do have gone up and up — the minimum distances that they fly. And you’re forced to fly with 180 people in a jet and, if you want to go from point A to B, sometimes you’re forced to go to point C and back again because all these services have been cut.”
The Netherlands-based Electron Aerospace is developing a clean-sheet electric plane with room for four passengers plus a pilot that it aims to have certified and carrying revenue passengers by 2027. Electron Aviation is the operator side of the business that will fly the plane in an on-demand service pattern between small airports. Mouris, a former pilot with defunct British regional airline Flybe, founded the company with Marc-Henry de Jong in 2020.
Sound familiar? That’s because the business has many similarities to the model being pitched by the developers of helicopter-like electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft. Many of those planes will similarly carry up to four passengers plus a pilot to airports and destinations not currently connected to the global aviation system, and aim to do so much more cheaply than conventional aircraft. The difference, however, is eVTOLs target the urban air mobility market, or trips of less than roughly 100 miles — think Manhattan to JFK airport, or Palo Alto to downtown San Francisco.
Electron’s aircraft will be an electric conventional takeoff and landing plane, or what is known as an eCTOL, with a range of up to 750 kilometers, or a little under 500 miles. Asked why the company is developing something akin to an electric Cessna and not an eVTOL, which are currently darlings of Silicon Valley, Mouris said it was primarily about range.
eVTOLs “will get me from Southampton to London, or from Heathrow Airport to London city center, but it’s not going to get me from London to Amsterdam,” he said. “For that you need an eCTOL or, in fact, you need a clean sheet eCTOL.”
The opportunity in this market, known as regional air mobility, is not lost on the aviation industry. In a recent report, McKinsey estimated that the segment could be worth $75-115 billion and serve as many as 700 million travelers annually by 2035. Many of those potential fliers, particularly in the U.S., currently drive for trips under 500 miles.
Electron is not alone in seeing the opportunity in regional air mobility. Eviation and Heart Aerospace are both working on new, clean-sheet electric or hybrid-electric planes that would cater to this market. In addition, others like Surf Air Mobility are working on retrofitting existing aircraft with hybrid-electric propulsion systems that, in their view, would significantly reduce the costs of flying these regional routes and reopen air service to many smaller cities.
The main difference between Electron and these other companies, as Mouris sees it, is the Dutch company will offer on-demand air travel at the touch of an app similar to what people are used to with ride-hailing services. Think Blade Air Mobility but with electric planes developed in-house. Electron does have options from buyers as far afield as Australia and South Korea for 39 aircraft currently.
And while Mouris admitted that this would initially only be available to businesses and well-off travelers — prices will be equivalent to those of a business class airline ticket — he expects costs to come down as service scales up. He added that conventional air service is only going to get more expensive in the future as new taxes and emission charges are implemented.
“If true that a range of 500 miles can be achieved … the applications of the technology are many,” said William Swelbar, chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy and a long-time researcher on regional air connectivity in the U.S. However, those “many” applications come with a lot of buts, not least “the workforce demands that cannot be met today,” he said referring to the captain shortage faced by many U.S. regionals. Costs will also be a challenge, Swelbar added.
Asked about the hurdles, particularly pilot staffing, Mouris cited training hour requirements that new pilots must meet. For example, in the U.S. a new air transport pilot certificate to fly for a major airline like American Airlines or Southwest Airlines requires 1,500 hours in the air. Most pilot trainees, however, graduate from flight schools with around 220-250 hours.
“You could actually get paid to get those hours, and then you could just walk into a big airline if you want to,” Mouris said. Pilots for charter or air taxi companies require fewer hours.
Electric aircraft are widely viewed as cheaper to operate than their internal-combustion counterparts. For example, as with cars, electric engines have fewer moving parts and thus lower maintenance costs. However, as pointed out by Swelbar, production and operational scale will be needed before those savings can be fully realized.
Before Electron — or anyone else for that matter — can begin trying to restart the regional air mobility market with electric planes, those aircraft must be developed and certified by regulators. The Dutch company is in what Mouris described as the “preliminary design phase” of its twin-engine electric plane and focused on the engineering. He declined to name Electron’s suppliers — for example, of the propulsion system or the batteries. But he said the company was working with some “really strong players.”
Electron aims to begin test flights in 2025 and secure certification from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) by the end of 2026. U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certification will come after its plane is approved in Europe, Mouris said.