Friday, April 25, 2014

Airbus Sees Hybrids as Key to Market for Small Planes: Bombardier and Embraer Not Dominate Market Segment

The Wall Street Journal

By Robert Wall 

April 25, 2014 6:00 a.m. ET

MUNICH— Airbus Group for the first time is considering entering the crowded market for small jetliners and sees futuristic, electrically powered planes as its edge to sell 90-seat airliners.

Airbus is betting that emerging hybrid-electric propulsion technology will allow it to eventually prevail in a segment where market leaders Bombardier Inc. and Brazil's Embraer S.A. are already contesting with rivals from Russia, China and Japan. Airbus's hybrid regional airliner would aim to slash fuel consumption by around 75% from current technology in standard regional planes. It would also cut noise to enable nighttime operations that are restricted at many airports, said Jean Botti, Airbus's chief technical officer.

Building a regional plane would greatly extend Airbus's product reach at a time it is battling companies such as Bombardier and Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd., or Comac. Both aim to enter the market for jets seating more than 100 people—a sector in which Airbus offers its best-selling plane, the A320.

Airbus, meantime, currently has only limited involvement in the smaller airliner sector through its ATR turboprop joint venture with Finmeccanica  SpA.

Airbus's market entry won't happen overnight.

"I would love to have a working prototype in 2030," Mr. Botti said, adding that Airbus is working with companies such as Siemens AG  and Rolls-Royce Holdings  PLC and others to validate key technologies.

As a first step, the world's second-largest plane maker behind Boeing Co. plans this summer to establish a new unit, to be called VoltAir, with the goal of building a two-seat, all-electric aircraft from late 2017, Mr. Botti said. The E-Fan, a family of small planes, would also feature two-seat and four-seat hybrid versions to prove out technologies and production processes for larger models.

Hybrid plane technology would operate not unlike a Toyota Prius car, in which power is ordinarily provided by an electric engine with a fuel-burning motor providing a boost to the battery. Some energy harvesting during landing may also be possible, Sebastien Remy, head of Airbus Group Innovations said during a press briefing.

Airbus has been flying the first E-Fan, an all-electric twin-engine design, since March 11 near Bordeaux, France, where it will set up the production facility. The vehicle, designed and built in 18 months, is 6.67 meters long with a 9.5-meter wingspan and powered by two 30-kilowatt electric engines.

The production planes will initially be sold to schools involved in pilot training, with the French L'Ecole Nationale de l'Aviation Civile in Toulouse already having signed on. The product will be priced to be competitive with similar-sized commercial aircraft, which typically retail for around $300,000.

One reason to pursue mass production of the small aircraft is to work out kinks before starting the more ambitious airliner, Mr. Botti said.

The high power demands of modern airliners mean regional aircraft represent the size limit for hybrid-electric propulsion, Mr. Botti said. Even a regional aircraft will require about 5 megawatts of power, more than that used by a diesel train. For larger planes, Airbus's core airliner market, other technologies, including biofuels, will have to deliver fuel-burn reductions and environmental improvements, Mr. Botti said.

Managing the high electrical loads onboard and storing the large amounts of power are among the main challenges for hybrid-electric designs. Airbus is looking at lithium polymer batteries that are more stable than lithium ion designs, which Boeing struggled with on its 787 Dreamliner. "We have to break some technology barriers," Mr. Remy said