How Will New Propulsion Technologies Affect The Aviation Aftermarket?

Alaska Airlines Bombardier Q400

Alaska Airlines is collaborating with ZeroAvia to retrofit a retired Bombardier Q400 with hydrogen propulsion.

Credit: Joe Nicholson/Alaska Airlines

Despite the relative infancy of new hybrid-electric aircraft and engine platforms in commercial aviation, industry players are looking to play an active role in driving new technology development as aviation strives for net-zero emissions by 2050.

During a recent panel at MRO Americas in Atlanta about the future of the hybrid-electric market, representatives from MROs, airlines and OEMs shared their thoughts on how they see the market progressing in the mid-to-long-term and identified barriers to adoption related to certification and overall industry readiness.

More than 100 advanced air mobility platforms are estimated to be in development, including electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) platforms and conventional aircraft powered by electric propulsion. In a relatively young industry, several startup companies have emerged as contenders. Among them is Swedish electric aircraft start-up Heart Aerospace, which launched in 2018 initially focusing on 19-seat electric aircraft. The venture’s backers include the Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures. To date, it has commitments for more than 400 aircraft, including deals with operators such as: United Airlines, an early investor that placed an order for 100 19-seat ES-19s; U.S. carrier Mesa Airlines that also has an order for 100 aircraft; and Air Canada, which placed an order for 30 electric aircraft for delivery starting in 2028.

“We decided that we wanted to focus on small regional transport [aircraft] because we feel that there is a market there. It’s been in decline for quite some time because of reasons such as primitive economics, high acquisition costs and high maintenance costs,” says Simon Newitt, chief commercial officer at Heart Aerospace. Speaking about the company’s first foray into the segment, he adds: “If we can come up with a solution that addresses that economic proposition, but also with sustainability and agreed credentials, we feel that we can unlock a market.”

However, in a change of its strategy over the past year, Heart Aerospace decided to shift its focus to a 30-seat hybrid-electric aircraft design unveiled in September 2022. Newitt says Heart has just passed through the conceptual phase and has now entered the preliminary design review, and the company is onboarding suppliers and partners. In the long term, he sees a gradual progression from small-scale aircraft, eventually leading to narrowbodies and beyond. “All these technologies, as we’re seeing, are going to start off on the small end, whether it’s eVTOL or short regional flights,” Newitt says. “Naysayers will say that’s really not moving the needle. But unless you start there—test the technologies, get the infrastructure in place and understand what the issues are—you’ll never be able to get to that next step.”

Gerrit Rexhausen, manager of corporate innovation at Lufthansa Technik, says the company expects the first hydrogen-powered aircraft within the next 15 years, and it is developing this through its Hamburg-based Hydrogen Aviation Lab—a project that is turning a decommissioned Airbus A320 into a stationary laboratory. Within this lab, Lufthansa Technik and its partners aim to assess the impact of liquid hydrogen on maintenance and ground-handling processes. “We are currently integrating a complete process of liquid hydrogen starting with the delivery, storage, fueling the aircraft and the distribution of hydrogen inside the aircraft,” Rexhausen says.

Pasha Saleh, head of corporate development at Alaska Airlines, says the carrier will look to invest in future platforms through the lens of practicality and with the cooperation of associated union members. “We’re at an inflection point technologically where an entirely new generation of aircraft are going to be available, and you can either be on the forefront of that or you can be left behind,” says Saleh, who also leads Alaska Airlines’ Star Ventures investment fund. Alaska’s first forays into this segment are related to decarbonization efforts, targeting net-zero emissions by 2040. “Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) will be the bulk of that, but we know that novel propulsion and new technologies will have to be a part of that pathway,” he says.

Recent projects include a collaboration with ZeroAvia to retrofit a retired Bombardier Q400 aircraft into a hydrogen-propulsion aircraft by removing one of its regular-fuel engines and replacing it with one powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Despite plans for the Q400 to begin ground-testing by the end of next year, any significant propulsion changes will likely be long-term for the U.S.-based carrier. “We’re not going to be here in 2023 saying this will work and this won’t work, so it’s about seeding all these technologies,” Saleh says. “Over the next seven years, Alaska Airlines maintenance personnel will be working in a hangar with a Q400 as it’s being torn apart and rebuilt in some new way. We think that’s going to represent opportunities for learning, but even now we can’t yet predict where that’s going to go.” Saleh adds that in order for these new technologies to work effectively, there needs to be cross-sector collaboration, given that the impact will fall across most roles and skill sets in the industry.

Alex Youngs, director of marketing and business intelligence at StandardAero, sees the emerging market as both a threat and an opportunity for the MRO provider. “A lot of the initial work that’s been done in the industry is on [Pratt & Whitney Canada] PT6 engine platforms—both replacing existing turbine engines with a hybrid-electric and new-generation platforms that go straight to hybrid electric,” he says. “We’re working with the OEMs to see how they plan to support their new engines on the new aircraft and what we can do within this system.”

Given that these new aircraft and propulsion platforms are still in their infancy, many MROs are still waiting to see what their long-term role in this evolving market will be. But the consensus suggests that there will be a long-term period of learning ahead for maintenance providers. “There is some overlap with existing support services that the MRO community provides for electronics, for example,” Youngs says. “On the other hand, there will be some new technologies that we have to learn. The first question will be: Do we develop these capabilities in-house, or do we look outside into other industries [to] acquire the technology or acquire the people from outside?”

Youngs sees the certification stage of new hybrid platforms being a tough process with regulators. “They’re going to require you to explain how you intend to keep the aircraft sustainable through service,” he says. Youngs adds that given the small size of initial hybrid-electric platforms, there will be a greater dependence on of the availability of locations to support their operations.

James Pozzi

As Aviation Week's MRO Editor EMEA, James Pozzi covers the latest industry news from the European region and beyond. He also writes in-depth features on the commercial aftermarket for Inside MRO.