Alaska Airlines, United Outline AAM Business Models

Credit: ZeroAvia

DALLAS—Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, which both plan to be early adopters of electric aircraft, have given more details about how the new generation of advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles will likely be integrated into their operating networks.

Alaska has partnered with UK-based ZeroAvia to develop the ZA2000 liquid-hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain for retrofit to the 76-seat De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 regional turboprop. United meanwhile plans to retrofit up to 50 Bombardier CRJ-550s with ZA2000-RJ hydrogen-electric engines beginning as soon as 2028.

United and its regional affiliate Mesa Air Group have also invested in Swedish startup Heart Aerospace and placed conditional orders for 200 of the all-electric 30-seat ES-30 regional aircraft, plus options for 100 more. Deliveries are planned to begin in 2028.

Beyond next-generation regionals, United and Mesa have also invested in U.S. electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) startup Archer Aviation, placing conditional orders for 200 of its piloted four-passenger Midnight air taxis, plus options for another 100, for entry into service in 2025. The carrier has also invested $15 million in Embraer spinoff Eve Holding and signed a conditional order for 200 of its eVTOL aircraft for delivery starting in 2026 with options for another 200. 

While acknowledging the large-scale diversification of United’s decarbonization fleet plan, Edward Espiritu, senior manager of United Airlines Ventures and Corporate Development, says: “We’re not in it to get cool science projects. We want to invest in commercially viable products and that includes scaling it to an operational level where we can create value and ultimately profitability.”

Espiritu, who was speaking at Aviation Week’s Engine Leasing, Trading & Finance Americas conference, adds that the technical limitations of hydrogen-fueled aircraft inevitably mean that initially, “there’s going to be degradation for us in terms of both the range and capacity that we plan for our network.” However, referring specifically to the CRJ-550 re-engining project, Espiritu says these early designs could open the door to better versions in the future. “At least we have a viable commercial business case with the hope that the technology advances to create a more viable product,” he says.

United has previously said that by 2030 it expects to have electric fixed-wing aircraft flying regional routes, around 100 of which are likely to be ES-30s. By the same time, the airline also aims to be using around 100 eVTOLs on services connecting city centers with major United hub airports in areas like New York and San Francisco.

Despite the expense of establishing the eVTOL service, Espiritu says ferrying premium travelers to gateway hubs is “a compelling value proposition to our passengers to avoid stress-inducing, time-consuming commutes to the airport.” 

The airline plans to “bundle that service into an existing customer experience,” he adds. “There are also other interesting use cases involving corporate clients—we have a hotel partnership with Marriott which could involve a hotel shuttle from the rooftop of that hotel to the airport.”

“If we have a business class passenger who’s already paying for a $5,000 ticket, can we offer a product or a ticket package that includes Wall Street to Canary Wharf in London? As part of that customer journey, can we charge at different points so they don’t see the cost that we may apply to the eVTOL section of that overall trip?” Espiritu says. “We believe there is a higher willingness to pay for the value you get by being able to avoid a commute from downtown Manhattan to Newark. We feel there’s a pricing power that we can put in the customer experience that could help offset some of those upfront costs.” 

Espiritu stresses that these would be initial use cases that he believes, “would counter some of the some of the pushback from the eVTOL model” that could be expected.

“For Alaska, there’s obviously different models,” says Ken Newton, Alaska Airlines’ director of supply chain management engine and lease management. “In the Pacific Northwest we have a lot of routes that we flew [Dash 8-400s] and now Embraer 175s for maybe 50 minutes to the smaller field locations, whether it’s in Montana, Idaho or Washington. You can see a vision where you could fly these types of alternative aircraft to those locations in the smaller locations and make an economic return on investment.”

Although initial operations with Dash 8-400s powered by ZeroAvia’s liquid-hydrogen-fueled engine could be run “at a bit of a loss,” Newton says the overall impact would be a carbon-neutral flight that feeds downline business. “It’s that investment you do that gets them to go to your network,” he says. “It’s just another tool in that overall package to differentiate yourself.” 

Profitability will improve as fleets of hydrogen-fueled aircraft begin to proliferate, Newton predicts.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.