Ed Hill speaks to Air Nostrum’s Miguel Ángel Falcón Martín and Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Tom Grundy about the airline’s order for ten Airlander 10 aircraft to serve on Spanish regional routes.
If aviation is going to meet the COâ‚‚ emission demands imposed on it by targets such as Net Zero, there is going to have to be an adoption of diverse technologies to comply. There is also going to have to be a change in travellers’ expectations about what they envisage air travel to be and how it can be used most effectively.
It is this kind of thinking that has led Spanish airline and high-speed rail operator Air Nostrum to be the first to order the HAV Airlander 10 for commercial passenger flight. The regional airline has reserved 10 of the hybrid airships to fly on Spanish domestic routes, set to begin operation in 2026.
“We fly regional jets for our longer flights and turboprops for our shorter journeys but we are always open to explore any new option that makes sense for our network,” states Air Nostrum’s managing director, Miguel Ángel Falcón Martín.
“We started to look at more sustainable ways of flying a decade ago but also systems that would be more flexible. With Airlander you can use it practically anywhere. You don’t need an airport. You can even land it on water. That potential versatility is very important for our network development. This won’t be a substitute for our jets and turboprops, it’s more an enhancement of our services.”
Low emission flight
It is expected that the aircraft will deliver regional flights with 90% less emissions than traditional aircraft and longer term bring that down to zero emissions with the introduction of electrification and hydrogen fuelled flight.
“We have always promoted Airlander as a concept that sits in between the fast jet transport systems and surface transport options such as trains and buses,” Tom Grundy CEO of Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) explains. “We believe that Airlander provides great opportunities to make regional flying more efficient. It can also be used in parts of the world that don’t have established infrastructure, such as airports, roads and railways. That’s why we are so excited about this partnership with Air Nostrum. With their understanding of air transport but also high-speed rail they are the ideal company to demonstrate how Airlander can fit in with those transport options.”
Airlander uses a combination of buoyancy from helium in the balloon envelope, aerodynamics, and vectored thrust provided by its four engines – which also manoeuvre the aircraft. Unlike conventional airships it can land easily rather than be tethered making passenger access straightforward and its aerodynamics make it less vulnerable to cross winds. The version ordered by Air Nostrum will carry around 100 passengers in its gondola.
“We have carried out thorough analysis on the possible route networks and combinations with HAV,” Falcón says. “Clearly shorter distances will be the main candidate routes. There are distances in the 200km (approximately 100 nautical mile) range that, despite its slower speed but with its 100-seat capacity, the Airlander will be very compatible with what our fleet offers today.”
So, in practice Air Nostrum will be operating the Airlander on city to city or region to region journeys that are not already well served either by conventional passenger aircraft or rail.
“It gives us the opportunity to establish new near city connections with very little infrastructure,” Falcón affirms. “There are many journeys that do not have an adequate air or railway alternative and where building a railway line or airport is just not practical in terms of planning, construction and funding. The Airlander is an innovative mobility platform that can deliver those sorts of journeys for a hundred passengers in a much more practical and environmentally friendly way.”
“Airlander is a different category of transport,” adds Grundy. “Its ability to land in places separate from airport infrastructure, combined with the fact that boarding and embarking is much simpler, opens up the possibility of journey times that are very much comparable to existing transport alternatives. In terms of weather and the impact on journey time, there is a misconception about what Airlander is and its susceptibility to adverse conditions. It is designed so it can take off and fly in the same weather conditions as other commercial aircraft. We’ve also carried out thorough assessments and as Airlander in a passenger carrying role will be doing relatively short journeys the statistical impact of wind conditions on journey times is comparable with other aircraft.”
Gradually going electric
Thanks to its design characteristics adaptation to electric and hydrogen powered flight is considerably easier with Airlander than it is with traditional aircraft in the longer term. Collins Aerospace, in conjunction with the University of Nottingham and HAV have been developing a 500kW E-HAV1 electric engine, with support from the Aerospace Technology Institute.
“500kW is the logical starting point for our electric engines as with its integral lift Airlander can carry 100 passengers but with a much lower energy requirement than traditional aircraft. For a conventional regional aircraft, you will need megawatts of power and carrying fewer passengers,” states Grundy.
“When it comes to Hydrogen powertrain development, Airlander has very different properties to a standard fix wing configuration aircraft. The lift capacity can deal with the mass of a hydrogen system, but it also has much greater volume which means it is easier to find room for the storage tanks. It means the introduction of hydrogen/electric power can be much sooner on Airlander than other aircraft.”
Initially Airlander will have its two front combustion engines replaced by electric ones. Later, the rear engines will be replaced too making it zero-emitting. However, there is now the challenge for HAV to transform the Airlander programme from development into full-fledged production, especially if it is to meet Air Nostrum’s aim to have it serving passengers by 2026.
The company is currently working with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to develop a site for commercial production of the Airlander which is anticipated to create around 1,200 new jobs. Part of a new green aviation cluster, the facility will be able to deliver 24 certified Airlander aircraft per year.
“For a long time, the discussion around Airlander has focused on developing the technology and creating a platform that works, now we have to build a business and a new ecosystem around that technology,” Grundy says.
So how will Air Nostrum convince passengers that Airlander is a viable alternative to traditional fixed wing aircraft?
“You have to persuade people to take the first step and make sure the experience is positive,” Falcón says. “With Airlander there are a number of benefits to compensate for the differences from traditional aircraft. Firstly, it is a gentler form of flying, secondly the cabin is not pressurised so you can even open the windows if you wish and thirdly there will be more seating space. This is aside from the environmental benefits that more and more of our passengers are becoming concerned about.
“We are undergoing a revolution in aviation at the moment, largely due to environmental considerations that are absolutely necessary. Clearly Airlander is a huge step forward environmentally and we are committed to that through this partnership.”
Grundy concludes: “To make sustainable air travel a reality we have to give passengers choices that are convenient, that get people where they need to be, at the time they need but with only 10% of the emissions. This order is very significant not only for us and Air Nostrum but for the industry and aviation as a whole.”