Flight Schools - Going All-Electric?


As stated in two previous digests, recently, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding all-electric aircraft. Notwithstanding all the hype, it is clear that all-electric aircraft’s feasibility in the airlines on a mass scale is still some time ahead of us. The current battery and motor technologies are not up to the task of flying in the flight levels with hundreds of passengers. However, do all-electric aircraft have a place in flight training? Many would argue that they do, to a certain extent at least. What are the implications for all-electric aircraft at current development for flight training, and how may pilot training institutions respond to this development?


Key takeaways

  1. All-electric aircraft are not yet certified by the FAA in the United States.
  2. There’s currently a strong reluctance by the average flight school across the United States to adopt all-electric aircraft into their fleets. 
  3. Larger flight schools that are more capitalized and have greater cash reserves will experiment more with all-electric aircraft in the early stages. 


There are a few pilot training aircraft manufacturers that are currently developing all-electric aircraft for the pilot training community. Some of these players have a track record in the flight training space, such as Pipistrel and Diamond aircraft, while other companies are set up primarily to create all-electric trainers. However, as of this writing, there are no all-electric aircraft certified by the FAA to operate and use for flight training under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR). While other countries around the world are using all-electric aircraft for pilot training to a limited extent, they are not currently being used in the United States for flight training. The reason is that the FAA under 14 CFR has very specific requirements necessary for an aircraft to be used in the general aviation space and for pilot training. The most stringent of which is the fuel (energy) reserve requirement for aircraft operating in Visual Flight Rules (VFR), and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Due to the lack of certification, any institution wishing to utilize all-electric aircraft may only do so not as a part of their primary flight program but as a possible experimental program. The major challenge here is that with current development and technology currently all-electric aircraft being built for flight training has not yet met these reserve requirements. For example, it is estimated that one of the front runners in the electric aircraft for pilot training given the right conditions can only provide approximately 20 minutes of flight. In that case, there is not even enough total flight time to meet the FAA’s minimum requirement for VFR conditions with regards to reserves.


Adoption Reluctance


Currently, there is some reluctance on the part of the flight schools and training institutions operators for adopting all-electric aircraft as trainers. While there are myriad reasons for this reluctance a few of the major ones are listed as follows:


  1. The reluctance of the community in general in adopting new technology. It is no secret that the aviation training community has always been reluctant to adopt new technology. Part of the reason is that the industry structure itself incentivizes players to stick with what they know and keeps the players from venturing too far away from the safe zone. This will be a major factor in the rate of adoption across-the-board as it relates to mass usage of all-electric aircraft for flight training.
  2. The cost of acquisition. Since the technology is relatively new the cost of producing these aircraft will generally be high in comparison to buying a comparable used or new aircraft of the piston propulsion variety. With that, flight schools will need to deal with the added investment required to acquire these aircraft.
  3. Changing operation and processes to accommodate the all-electric aircraft. With regards to their requirements, all-electric aircraft operate differently. Institutions require a different set of input factors that inevitably changes the operating processes that need to be in place to operate these kinds of aircraft. From maintenance requirements to the very way, their batteries are charged and ready for use in a fast pace rapid turnover environment. It's different when compared to their AVGas piston counterparts.
  4. The cost of operating. As mentioned above due to the changes in the process and infrastructure required to operate all-electric aircraft, the costs for operating are different. In fact, in this early phase of the adoption of the technology the cost of operations will be particularly high in comparison to piston-engine aircraft. These costs play a major role in whether or not a particular school will adopt or use all-electric aircraft in its fleet. Be it total or in part. 


Larger Flight Schools 


While it is clear that larger schools may have the funding to experiment with this tech at first, there is still a cost-benefit trade-off to be considered, as compared to conventional piston engines. Nonetheless, large flight schools such as Florida Tech and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University May have the capital reserves to experiment with this technology, however, the vast majority of flight schools do not. A few large universities will not drive the entire adoption of the technology. It needs to become more mainstream. In order to do so, It will need to be adopted by the average flight school around the country, assuming, however, that they acquire the FAA certification, and the cost to benefit trade-off equation makes sense to the average flight school.


There are several reasons why it will be advantageous for larger flight schools to experiment with this new technology. Some of the most common reasons are:


  1. It offers these larger flight schools to leverage their massive capital to get in on the ground floor of what may be the next wave of change in the industry.
  2. It allows these flight schools to project to the general public that they are at the forefront of the changes in technology. This bodes well for maintaining branding and goodwill.
  3. And, large schools sometimes generally want to help introduce new technology into the industry that they believe will help the industry move forward in a better way.


The Overall Pace Of Adoption


Adoption of all-electric aircraft will be slow at first, and rightly so. This is because the speed of adoption with any technology including all-electric aircraft is based on the speed of the advance in that technology. In other words, if the speed of development and advancement in the technology itself is greater so will be the adoption of the technology. The users of the technology, as stated above, will always weigh the cost-benefit analysis, and the greater the advancement and speed of that advancement the more confidence consumers - in this case, flight schools - will have in the new technology. This seems logical because the faster technology is being advanced it means that there are more players in the industry to support the technology and provide a greater amount of after-sales service, along with a greater number of third-party Value-Added Resellers (VAR) in the space. 


Another thing to note is that the faster all-electric aircraft evolve the more manufacturers will enter the space to create more of them. This has a snowball effect of attracting even more manufacturers into the space which will then cause the pace of development to accelerate even further. In essence, this stabilizes the entire all-electric training aircraft fleet and makes it a lot easier for the average flight school to adopt a technology with all of the requisite after-sale support and service.


Now, it is clear that we do not know at this point what will be the outcome of the number of manufacturers for all-electric aircraft that will be in the industry, the pace of development over time, nor whether all-electric aircraft will be viable enough for the average flight school. What we do know is that there are significant developments so far and that there are some interests across-the-board, however, widespread interest is not yet indicated. 


How May Flight Schools Respond 


If history is any guide, it will show that overall, flight schools will respond to this new development the same way they responded to virtually every other technological advance in the aviation training space. They will first carefully watch to see if there’s any value to be had, then weigh that value against the cost of gaining that value. As it relates to all-electric aircraft they will be doing the same thing. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, flight schools may want to respond to this development in the following ways:


  1. Consider whether or not a particular all-electric aircraft has been authorized by the FAA for flight training.
  2. Perform a thorough cost-benefit analysis that compares using all-electric aircraft with their current fleet. This way a particular flight school can get detailed insights into whether or not it makes sense to upgrade to all-electric aircraft given the demand and type of training they currently do.
  3. Think carefully through the kind of processes, resources, and infrastructure needed to operate all-electric aircraft. Then compare this information to the current process, resource, and infrastructure being used to operate the courage fleet. The idea here is to ascertain what is required to operate all-electric aircraft as opposed to sticking with the fleet currently operated.
  4. From all the information gathered above do a thorough analysis based on market conditions, economic factors, and internal business variables. The idea here is to create a big picture cost-benefit analysis that is more detailed than just looking at the new technology and saying, “that would not work for us”. With this information, a more accurate judgment could be made as to whether or not it would make sense to at least start acquiring some all-electric aircraft.


The above items are quite general, and a more detailed and in-depth analysis will need to be undertaken by any respective flight school. However, the items above are a good start when thinking about whether or not a flight school could take on all-electric aircraft into its fleet.


One final note on this. Some schools may consider that not getting into the game with all-electric aircraft if they become popular would make them lose ground, even if they cannot afford the kind of changes necessary to adopt the new technology. While this is a genuine concern it should not be a major problem in the near to medium term. This is because much like with automotive engine technology, there are still a lot of deficiencies left in the internal combustion engines that have still not yet been taken advantage of. This means internal combustion engines for aircraft can still become more efficient. The Rotax 915 engine is just one example. A flight school also can become more efficient in its internal operations, if competition is a concern. By working at improving current internal processes through techniques such as Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), and exploring new flight school management solutions that can allow it to have greater resource utilization, it can cut costs across the board, and remain competitive.


Some may argue that all-electric aircraft for flight training is already here and it’s only a matter of time before it’s completely adopted. While that argument has a lot of merits, what is also true is the adoption of new technology in the aviation training space has always been slow, to say the least. Flight schools operate the way they do because of the industry structure within which they operate, and the fact is that they operate on razor-thin margins with little capital or cash reserves to invest in new unproven ideas. Therefore, they always have to pick their battles carefully, or else a particular flight school can become obsolete because of a mistake. While it is clear no matter how long it takes to adopt most new technology, they are generally a good thing for the aviation training space. Yet, what is not so clear is how that technology will be adopted or even if it will be fully adopted by the pilot training segment in general. There is a valid reason why the average aircraft age for the average flight school across the country is approximately 30-40 years old. The reason is that these aircraft work. They do their jobs with relation to providing the level of training necessary at the cost most suitable to allow a flight school to continue its operations given myriad factors that must go into its calculations. With all that being said, it’s anyone’s guess if or when all-electric aircraft will be adopted by the majority of flight schools across the country. In the meantime what we know for sure, is that flight schools will continue operating the way they are because that is the only way they can survive to take their business into the very future that many pundits are now predicting.


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