In the coming years, cruising altitude could go from more than 30,000 feet down to (literally) just above sea level—at least between the Hawaiian Islands.
Hawaiian Airlines this month announced that it has invested in Regional Electric Ground Effect Nautical Transport (REGENT), a Boston-based company that makes 100 percent electric-powered seagliders.
“Hawaiian Airlines has a strong interest in figuring out how we can reduce the carbon intensity of our operation,” Avi Mannis, chief marketing and communications officer for Hawaiian Airlines, told AFAR. “The interisland market, in particular, presents some unique opportunities because of the short distance and high volume of travel. We’ve been exploring technologies that might be beneficial in accomplishing that. The seaglider concept struck us as particularly interesting.”
The futuristic seagliders are a new category of vehicle for the commerical air travel market, a REGENT spokesperson told AFAR. And while they bridge the worlds of maritime and aerospace, they’re not seaplanes, which are designed to land on and take off from water, but can fly over land or water.
“The seaglider operates exclusively over water, traversing the sea in one of three modes—floating on its hull, using its hydrofoil, or flight above the water’s surface in ground effect,” a REGENT spokesperson told AFAR.
Basically, it leaves the dock like a boat, but soon rises onto a retractable hydrofoil (a type of underwater fin that is designed to lift a moving boat out of the water). Once it’s off the water’s surface and gets up to speed (between 20 and 40 miles per hour), it transitions to using its wings. They’re kept aloft by a pressurized air cushion between the water and the aircraft and will cruise along at speeds up to 180 miles per hour.
Mannis said the seagliders wouldn’t replace the current fleet but rather work alongside it.
“We provide an enormous amount of connectivity here in Hawai‘i—our service is really the highway system of the state,” Mannis said. “This can be a useful complement, and it can help us explore more opportunities to decarbonize in the future.”
Mannis noted that interisland travel is a relatively small part of Hawaiian Airlines’ overall carbon footprint. The vast majority of the company’s emissions is a result of long-haul flights across the Pacific Ocean. Neverthless, it’s still a notable development for Hawaiian, as it will help the airline get to its goal of being carbon neutral.
The airlines industry produces 3 percent of global carbon emissions, and airlines across the board have been investing in a wide variety of measures to reduce their emissions in recent years. In fact, it’s now a requirement for members of Airlines for America (which Hawaiian is apart of), the trade organization that represents the major U.S. airlines, to be carbon neutral by 2050. Many, like United, are looking into sustainable aviation fuels. And while fully electric planes may be coming sooner than you think, the seagliders are fairly novel.
“This is one tool in a portfolio of strategies, part of a broader strategy that involves other things like more efficient operating practices, fleet modernization, and sustainable aviation fuel,” Mannis said. The ability to have a product that is powered by renewable energy that people can use to get between islands will be a benefit to us and to our community.”