This California charter company thinks it can scoop electric rotorcraft builders

Surf Air plans to start by retrofitting Cessnas with hybrid-electric power trains

If Surf Air Mobility, a California charter aviation company, manages to partially electrify existing turboprop regional aircraft by 2025, it could leapfrog dozens of advanced air mobility companies that are developing novel electric aircraft.

“The target to have our hybrid powertrain certified for deployment is the end of 2024,” the company’s CEO and co-founder Sudhin Shahani told me in an interview, referring to its technology for powering an aircraft through a combination of fossil fuel combustion and battery power.

“Along with Southern Airways, which we are merging with, we intend to roll out hybrid powertrains across our own service and that of others. Southern is the largest operator of Cessna Caravans, so that’s significant.”

The electrification plan would be funded by Surf’s planned initial public offering scheduled to occur before the end of 2022, which Surf estimates will raise $467 million and place the company’s value at $1.42 billion.

To aid the development and certification process, Surf has signed contracts with a company that has secured NASA funding for the electrification of aircraft — Magnix, based in the Seattle area. Magnix received a contract valued at $74.3 million in 2021 to “rapidly mature Electrified Aircraft Propulsion (EAP) technologies through ground and flight demonstrations” over five years, according to NASA.

Installing a hybrid-electric powertrain in an existing plane is a much faster and more efficient route to cutting carbon emissions in turboprop regional aviation than developing a completely novel airframe, Shahani says.

“Typically, people overhaul a combustion engine every 3,000 to 4,000 hours — every three or four years,” Shahani says. “At that moment, that’s when we’d say, ‘Instead of overhauling your combustion motor, put in a hybrid electric powertrain.’”

Eventually, new aircraft could be built to fly with fully electric powertrains, he says. 

The goal is to provide such hybrid powertrains at a “substantially similar” price, but the company hasn’t finalized that pricing, he says.

Shahani doesn’t view developers of novel AAM electric aircraft as competitors yet. “A lot of [them] will come to market much sooner than they’ll be able to scale up their businesses, because they need infrastructure, certification and legislation, among other things,” he says.

Meanwhile, “there’s a universe of over 2,500 Cessna Caravans out there, and our technology is going to apply to all of them.”

Surf Air currently operates a subscription charter service that arranges flights on aircraft owned and operated by other companies in California and Texas. It has an annual revenue of $100 million, he says. 

Shahani says the company’s electric powertrains will be proprietary, but the company intends to pursue a mission of decarbonizing regional aviation by also partnering with other companies and employing any technology available.

“We’re targeting up to 50% carbon reduction and up to 25% cost reduction over the current state of the industry,” he says. “We definitely want to lead by example.” 

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This California charter company thinks it can scoop electric rotorcraft builders