Airborne commuters in this region could soon have an electric option

Breakthrough depends on certification of BETA’s ALIA aircraft

Commuting over land in the Vancouver Island region of Canada today can mean climbing aboard small conventionally fueled aircraft, sometimes helicopters and sometimes fixed-wing planes. An announcement by a transportation company in that region suggests the potential for electric air taxis to augment those commuting services.

Helijet International, a charter service that today provides flights aboard conventionally fueled Sikorsky S-76 helicopters and other craft, announced Tuesday that it has placed an order for four electric air taxis from Vermont-based BETA Technologies at a price that was not revealed, with an option to buy four more. Helijet’s announcement follows that of its New York-based partner Blade Urban Air Mobility, which said in 2021 it would buy up to 20 of BETA’s ALIA aircraft.

BETA has been flying test versions of the electric, five-passenger, one-pilot ALIA, with plans to obtain type certification from FAA by 2026. One version, the CX300, takes off and lands conventionally while the other, the kind BETA has ordered, is an electric vertical takeoff and landing craft, or eVTOL.

The eVTOLs would provide an alternative for passengers who today must drive between their homes in rural or suburban areas and any of four urban heliports that would be updated into electric-aircraft-capable vertiports. At these hubs, commuters currently take helicopters to their workplaces and back across any of the area’s various waterways. Plans don’t call for flying the ALIA aircraft over those waters.

“We don’t believe there will be a big challenge in getting our existing passengers onto any aircraft that Helijet operates,” Helijet CEO Danny Sitnam tells me. “[BETA] aircraft are much more sustainable, in terms of lack of emissions and the electric power source. The fact that they are quieter is better for suburban operations.”

But he says there will be a transition period.

“There will definitely be an educational program with our communities and our passengers about why we are flying these and what the advantages are,” he says.

The company also intends to fly the ALIAs for medical transport, including delivery of organs for transplant and radioisotopes used to detect and treat cancer or cardiovascular disease.

“We see the opportunity for medical flights today, especially for rural communities where access to air services is limited,” Sitnam says.

He says electric aircraft will operate at lower costs and that savings can be passed on to the consumer, but he declined to specify how much lower such costs would be.

While Sitnam did not rule out buying electric aircraft from other providers, he said there were good reasons to start with BETA — one being the region’s frequent fog. He believes the Vermont company has demonstrated dedication to achieving an FAA type certification that will permit the aircraft to be piloted under Instrument Flight Rules, IFR, necessary for the foggy conditions.

Although BETA is currently pursuing certification only by FAA, the company said it intends to seek aircraft certification by the Canadian equivalent, Transport Canada.

“We also like that BETA has cultivated connections in Canada. They have an office in the Montreal area,” Sitnam notes.

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Airborne commuters in this region could soon have an electric option