Mokulele Airlines, the Hawaii division of Palm Beach-based Southern Airways (9X), is set to be the world’s first electric-powered carrier. The debut of the Hawaiian operator’s first hybrid Cessna 208 Grand Caravan is expected for late 2023 or early 2024.
Last November, Mokulele and California-based company Ampaire joined synergies during a series of trial flights between Kahului (OGG) and Hana (HNM) on the island of Maui. The route was chosen as the typical one operated by Mokulele in the Islands: short and with very quick turnarounds. The aircraft used in the trial flights was a Cessna 337 Skymaster modified through the substitution of one of its combustion engines with an electric one powered by batteries accommodated in a pod under the belly, resulting in a hybrid electric propulsion.
Renamed as the Electric EEL, during the 20-days trial the aircraft simulated airline activity with one or more rotations on each day between OGG and HNM, performing spotlessly and demonstrating the viability of hybrid electric propulsion on short regional operations. Between flights, batteries were re-charged in just 30 minutes by means of a 480 volt – 3 phase charger. While Ampaire is already studying a hybrid electric version of larger airplanes like the popular 19-seat Twin Otter, next on deck, in the 8-9 seats aircraft category, will be the Cessna Caravan, of which Mokulele, following the acquisition of Makani Kai Air in 2020, operates 16 samples.
“Ampaire actually reached out to Mokulele a few years ago, even before Southern Airways acquired them. The previous CEO, Rob McKinney, lived in Maui and believed that green energy would be extremely popular with locals in the islands. The fact that Mokulele flies some of the shortest commercial routes in the world made it a great fit for both parties, knowing that battery life would likely be limited in the early days of development “, CEO of Mokulele Airlines Stan Little revealed to TheAirlineGuru. “Trial flights in Maui have been a tremendous success, showing how reliable the hybrid technology developed by Ampaire is already. Those guys are moving very quickly and I think you’ll see hybrid-electric aircraft in commercial use sooner than most Americans would guess. When testing on the Caravan begins, we’ll be standing by to cooperate fully and then, of course, we’ll plan on being their first customer“.
In mid-February, Ampaire announced its acquisition by Surf Air Mobility, a Hawthorne, California-based company which is both a scheduled flights operator and a sort of ‘Uber of the skies’ as the manager of an online booking platform which interconnects some 2,000 aircraft operators with some 5,000 customers. A move that Little judges positively: “It appears that Surf Air Mobility has really committed to the electrification space. They’ve recently added some major industry talent to their leadership team, and they seem to be raising a lot of capital. I think this can only be a good thing for Ampaire going forward”.
TheAirlineGuru asked the CEO about what he expects from the hybrid conversion of his fleet, considering both economics and customers’ perception: “The goal of the program is to make the cost of conversion roughly the same as the cost of a standard engine overhaul, which, depending on the specific model of PT-6 engine, has traditionally been USD325,000 to USD550,000. As to airport infrastructure, one great benefit of the hybrid is that it has a generator on board to charge the batteries in flight. So, you don’t need to have a charging station at every airport. We’ll work with the State of Hawaii to get the power needed at our Honolulu and Kona hubs, just like we did at Kahului during the trials”. Regarding crew training, Little commented that “we have almost 100 pilots based in Hawaii. Our training program will be expanded to include operations on the hybrids, but we don’t anticipate an additional certification requirement”.
Of course, at Mokulele they are looking forward to enjoying the fuel cost savings connected to hybrid propulsion: “We expect a reduction in fuel expenses between 25% and 35%, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions” explained Little, adding that “having a fleet that’s powered by green energy is so important to a large percentage of our passengers”. Regarding ticket prices, “we’ve not developed our pricing model this far in advance, but there will be large initial costs to the airline which we’ll have to pay for over time—including infrastructure, purchase of the motors, implementation of new maintenance and training programs, etc. The cost savings on the fuel side are significant, but fuel is only a small part of our overall costs. So, I don’t expect a drastic drop in ticket prices initially. Longer term, I think electrification will change the entire industry and the way the world views air service”.
In the CEO’s vision, hybrids are going to be only the first step in a process that will lead to the first all-electric propelled Caravans: “I think it will be several years before we retire the last turbine engine in our fleet, but it will certainly be in this decade. If we can get to 50% hybrid by 2025, I’ll be very happy and I hope that by 2028 you’re asking me when we’ll be retiring the last hybrid plane in favour of all-electric!” (All photos Matteo Legnani and Mokulele Airlines)
Mokulele Airlines was founded by Rebecca ‘Kawehi’ Inaba, a native Hawaiian woman, in 1994. US commuter airline Southern Express Airways, led by founder, Chairman and CEO Stan Little, purchased it in February 2019. In June 2020 it acquired Makani Kai Air, taking the combined fleet of Cessna 208 Grand Caravans to 16. Its network has rapidly expanded to include 9 destinations in the State of Hawaii—more than any other airline. Mokulele serves: Honolulu (HNL) on the island of Oahu, where it operates from its exclusive Terminal 3; Kahului (OGG), Hana (HNM) and Kapalua (JHM) on the island of Maui; Kona (KOA) and Waimea (MUE) on the island of Hawaii; Ho’olehua (MKK) and Kaluapapa (LUP) on the island of Molokai; and Lanai City (LNY) on the island of Lanai. Two new routes are expected for a start in summer 2021, bringing Mokulele Airlines service to 11 Hawaiian airports.