Having recently been the first pilot to fly an electric plane over Melbourne airspace, Korum Ellis is optimistic these greener, cheaper and quieter aircraft are the future for regional short-haul routes in Australia.
An avid aviator, Ellis is the founder and CEO of FlyOnE, a Perth-based electric aircraft distributor that also offers pilot training and aircraft for recreational use and private transport on regional routes in Victoria and Western Australia.
Speaking with Business News Australia, Ellis explained how his flight over Melbourne one week ago in a Pipistrel Alpha Electro 23-2091 was a strategic business move intended to showcase how electric planes are now viable options in busy airspace.
“Getting over to a more globally connected city with millions more people is just a good business move. Because we've got more clients in the region, and then more clients will be in the right headspace to adopt and pursue something new,” Ellis explained.
“Moorabbin Airport is quite busy - arguably the busiest in the country for flight training. If we can make it work here, there's literally nowhere else that can say: is it going to work in our space because it's busy here?
“There are lots of fast planes, which is a concern, so it needs to fit into the existing traffic operations and proven already that we're comfortably able to do that in Melbourne.”
Founded in 2019, FlyOnE currently works with manufacturers in Slovenia to import and distribute Pipistrel Alpha Electro planes – which are an all-composite, two-seater, light sport aircraft – to a handful of Australian operators.
According to the founder, the majority of revenue comes from leasing out the fleet as pilots are put through training, in addition to the occasional private hire. Ellis hopes that further down the line income will also be generated from the private leasing of larger aircraft and commercial charter air taxi clients.
The company’s future plans involve importing the Diamond E-DA40, a four-seat electric aircraft built in Austria, and a five-seat twin-propeller electric plane known as Electron 5 from the Netherlands. FlyOnE has an additional 49 more planes on pre-order, which are due to roll out before the end of the decade.
Currently, the Pipistrel has around 90 minutes of flight time, which translates to a real-world use of about 40-60 minutes due to the fact 30 per cent of fuel is stored as reserve for emergency situations.
To recharge, the fastest option is a 20kW charger, which can take the battery life from 30 per cent to 95 per cent in just over an hour. The approximate cost of a full charge from a grid is less than five dollars.
FlyOnE works with four operators in Australia, with the BASE Aviation Flight Training centre agreeing just over a week ago to host an electric charger for the demonstration and testing of electric aircraft at Moorabbin Airport.
Other operational partners include Lilydale Flying School in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, which leases a Pipistrel Alpha Electro 23-2091 to connect Moorabbin and Tyabb airports. The plane is used for school operations and is available for private hire.
The Royal Aero Club of WA is also leasing a Pipistrel Alpha Electro 23-2092 at Murray Field Aerodrome in Mandurah, where it operates interconnecting services with neighbouring airport YPJT Jandakot.
Since April 2022, an Alpha Electro 23-2055 has been hosted by Cloud Dancer Pilot Training in YPJT Jandakot.
When asked where he believes electric planes can best be used, Ellis said that regional short-haul, regional routes would be the sweet spot for his existing fleet.
“It's unlikely that we'll see an aircraft that will fly from like Melbourne to Perth electric. But small regional hops of 100 to 300 kilometres - 100 per cent is a perfect use case for it. That sector exists now in aviation, the small micro charter where you can hire a small Cessna and a pilot will fly you and a couple of friends out to Mornington Peninsula or out to the Yarra Valley,” he said.
“But because of the cost of the aircraft and the cost of running, it's a bit of a price point that isn't attractive to most people and the plants are usually old and gross too. It's not a nice experience. It's a sector that isn't really well leveraged at the moment and doesn't have a high consumer consumption. We're hoping to really change that with a massive drop in cost for that sort of transport option.”
When initially starting his company four years ago, Ellis only planned to import, assemble and distribute electric planes to operators but quickly discovered many were apprehensive to take the new technology on board.
“I had huge barriers with aircraft operators, who are essentially my intended clients to purchase and adopt electric aviation to reduce their costs, reduce their emissions, and offer a newer, nicer way of flying," he said.
“So, instead of partnering with flight school operators, we worked with them very closely to build a training curriculum because nobody else was really putting the effort in. We had to wade through the safety and training minimums with the governing bodies to make sure that everything was nice and compliant and operating as safe as possible.
“We're doing different leasing and rental [agreements] to make it easier for the operators to adopt before committing to using it.”
Working with regulators
Currently in Australia, the only electric plane to have certification from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is the Pipistrel Alpha Electro. According to Ellis, CASA was the first regulatory body in the world to give the model a type certification, allowing FlyOnE to use it in flight schools and for hire in 2019.
Another governing body that introduced certification for electric aircraft is the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which authorised the commercial use of the Pipistrel Velis Electro in June 2020.
“Interestingly, we can’t transfer that EASA-type certification to CASA-type certification. At the moment, the only one we can find in Australia is the Alpha Electron. If I was to get the Velis Electro here, I'd have to try and get a unique once-off certificate of airworthiness, which we would be able to do because of the precedent set by the first plane,” Ellis explained.
“We're still working with CASA on that. So hopefully, that will be approved for full VH (civil aircraft) registration operations in the near future, which means we will be able to sell a ticket.
“We could fly someone from Perth to Rottnest Island as a paying customer, and do other commercial services too like surveying and photography.”
To get to that commercial stage, Ellis says it’s a matter of persistence, not just optimism.
“It's a matter of being annoyingly persistent to get it done. It's just what it takes, right? There's a lot of people out there optimistically waiting for something to happen. That's not how it works. You’ve got to go out and make it occur,” he said.
“That gets exhausting sometimes, but that's where we're at. I'm out there making things occur because if we had waited for certification years ago, it still wouldn't have happened.”
“That's the barrier to entry. Right? We're forging a new market place so we said: We're going to build it from the ground up.”
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