New US-based short-haul carrier Connect Airlines has announced plans to become “America’s first zero-emission airline”, signing a letter of intent to retrofit up to 24 turboprop aircraft with hydrogen propulsion systems from California’s Universal Hydrogen. The airline has committed to 12 conversion kits for Dash 8-300 aircraft, has purchase options for another 12 kits for other aircraft types and also signed a long-term agreement to procure green hydrogen from Universal, reports Tony Harrington. Subject to final regulatory approvals to operate flag, domestic scheduled and domestic unscheduled services, Connect Airlines will commence operations by spring 2022, initially with two conventionally-powered De Havilland Canada Q400 aircraft, linking the downtown Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto, Canada, with the major US hubs of Philadelphia International and Chicago O’Hare, and has plans for significant expansion to other major US destinations. It intends to introduce its first “true zero emission” aircraft into service in North America from 2025, when Universal’s conversion kits come to market.
Connect Airlines is a division of Waltzing Matilda Aviation, a Boston-based jet charter company, and a recent investor in Universal Hydrogen, which is developing a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain and modular capsule technology to enable containerised transfer of sustainably-produced hydrogen from its point of production to airports, for direct loading onto the aircraft it will power. The system is designed to use existing transport networks and airport service equipment, eliminating the need to construct or change fixed infrastructure. Universal initially will convert a Q300 aircraft for use as a testbed for its conversion kits, but plans to add other aircraft including ATR turboprops, before eventually expanding to conversions of larger planes, including current generation narrowbody jets.
The partnership between Connect and Universal signals significant growth by the start-up airline, which has foreshadowed a turboprop-led recovery of regional aviation in the United States. In addition to its first two leased Q400 aircraft – previously operated by UK low-cost carrier flybe – Connect intends to introduce three more of the type in 2022. The airline has adopted the ‘GreenJet’ brand for its Q400s, to reflect 35% lower emissions than comparable-size regional jets, and has flagged plans to serve a much wider network in the US. Firm orders for 12 hydrogen-propulsion conversion kits for Dash 8-300 aircraft and purchase options for 12 more conversion kits will enable the airline to establish scale, then upgrade to a larger airframe as its operations grow.
Connect Airlines CEO John Thomas, who has led Waltzing Matilda Aviation since 2008, is also a former Group Executive of Virgin Australia and Global Head of Aviation Practice for L.E.K. Consulting, and a current member of the Board of Directors of Icelandair Group, which is also exploring the conversion of its five De Havilland Dash 8-series aircraft to the Universal Hydrogen system. The airline uses a mix of Dash 8-200 and Dash 8-400 aircraft to operate within Iceland and to nearby Greenland.
Prior to Waltzing Matilda’s participation in a recent $62 million capital raising by Universal Hydrogen, Thomas foreshadowed a return to favour of turboprops in the US, following the pandemic-driven downturn in regional air services, and said Connect Airlines was committed to achieving zero-emission operations.
“The Q400 provides the most reliable and certain path to zero emissions with the work currently being undertaken by Universal Hydrogen to change the power system on the Dash 8 series of aircraft,” he said. “Given the significant environmental benefits of turboprops over regional jets, we believe there is going to be a real resurgence in the use of turbo in the US domestic market, and that’s really what our strategy is. Part of our core business model is a 60% reduction in carbon emissions today and a total elimination in five years’ time, which we think is a real game changer for the industry, that frankly has struggled to come up with a credible and meaningful environmental response.”
Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen, described as “monumentally important” the decision of Connect Airlines to commit to “true zero emissions in the relatively short term.”
Thomas added: “Connect Airlines flies smarter. That’s why we’re excited to partner with Universal Hydrogen to pursue our goal of being the first zero-emission airline in the United States. In addition to the letter of intent, we were pleased to participate in Universal Hydrogen’s recent $62 million financing round.”
Rival hydrogen propulsion provider ZeroAvia recently partnered with Alaska Air Group in the development of a hydrogen-electric powertrain, using a Q400 formerly operated by Alaska’s regional subsidiary Horizon Air. Alaska also secured options for up to 50 ZeroAvia conversion kits, to be used to convert the airline’s regional fleet, beginning with Q400s.
Image: Rendering of a hydrogen-converted Dash-8 being loaded with Universal Hydrogen capsules