Spain’s Air Nostrum Group, which also operates Ireland’s Hibernian Air and Malta’s Mel Air, has doubled to 20 its reservations for new, low-emission Airlander 10 airships from UK-based aerospace company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV). The helium airships, which will seat up to 100 passengers and carry a 10-tonne payload, initially will be lifted and propelled by thrust-vectored hybrid-electric engines, which HAV claims produce 90% lower emissions than similar capacity aircraft. The company is targeting 2026 for test flights and 2027 for certification and entry into service of the first Airlander 10s, and is planning to add a zero-emission, all-electric model by 2030. Air Nostrum Group, which also operates regional flights on behalf of Spain’s Iberia, said the second tranche of ten airships was planned for operations from Spain to eastern Mediterranean destinations including Malta. The airline group has also signed up as the first industrial partner for the development of a 50-tonne version of the airship, designated the Airlander 50.
Hybrid Air Vehicles expects the entry-level Airlander 10 to be the first large-scale aircraft to achieve zero-emission flight for missions including passenger and freight transport, experiential travel, communications and surveillance. “There is a large gap between today’s fast, energy-intensive aircraft, and slower, infrastructure-dependent surface transport,” the company said. “This leads to unmet needs.”
The four-engined Airlander 10 is designed to carry 10 tonnes of payload up to 4,000 nautical miles (7,408 kilometres) at a maximum altitude of 20,000 feet. Its inflatable hull will be made from composite structural materials, with helium buoyancy, aerodynamic design and vectoral thrust used to deliver lift. HAV says the Airlander will be able to stay airborne for up to five days.
In March this year, the company joined the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority, a group of local authorities in the north of England, to announce a £7 million ($8.7m) investment in establishing production facilities for the aircraft within the region, creating more than 1,200 jobs. Preparation is now underway to build a production line to develop up to 24 aircraft per year.
“Our growing partnership with Air Nostrum Group continues to demonstrate leadership towards the future of flight, revolutionising how we fly,” said HAV’s CEO Tom Grundy. “Airlander is designed to deliver a better future for commercially-appealing and truly sustainable aviation services, by enabling new transport services and better growth options for our customers.
“Airlander 10 will make this possible by 2027, and Airlander 50 will build on it. We’re so pleased to have doubled Air Nostrum’s reservation to 20 aircraft and to have its backing for our journey, and support for our Airlander 50 development programme.”
The company said the larger aircraft would have a maximum payload of 50 tonnes and a 2,200-kilometre maximum range, and be “the future of heavy lift freight transport … able to move cargo or people point-to-point with minimal infrastructure.”
It added: “Many industries such as remote mining and humanitarian aid rely on substantial, sometimes-fragile infrastructure to transport cargo. Airlander 50 will offer a new solution enabling efficient movement of heavy and awkward freight without damaging the environment.” In an all-passenger configuration, the Airlander 50 will be designed to carry up to 200 people.
Together with Mel Air, HAV has briefed Transport Malta, that country’s aviation regulator, on potential routes for Airlander 10 airships, including both land and water-based operations for sectors such as Malta-Gozo, Malta-Sicily and connections to other destinations in Italy, Tunisia and Libya.
“There are many factors that motivate us in flying Airlander,” said Miguel Ángel Falcón, Chairman of Mel Air and Vice President of Air Nostrum, referring to low fuel consumption for the hybrid-propulsion version, high operational flexibility to take off and touch down on both land and water, and the family concept of offering passenger and freight payload capacity between 10 and 50 tonnes. “These are just some critical factors that make the Airlander an excellent aircraft for regional flights,” he noted.
Transport Malta’s Director-General, Captain Charles Pace, welcomed the innovative and pioneering features of the Airlander programme. “This could be a very interesting opportunity for eco-friendly air services on regional routes based in Malta,” he said. “The geography and distances are well suited to this innovative aircraft, and I look forward to seeing the project advance further and provide alternative green transport between the islands.”
Air Nostrum’s reservations for 20 Airlander 10s and participation in the development of the Airlander 50 build upon an earlier investment, together with fellow regional carrier Volotea, in Spanish aviation company Dante Aerospace, which is developing an all-new electric airliner. The two have also invested in Dante’s sister company, Dovetail Electric Aviation, an Australian-European venture that is developing electric and hydrogen powertrains to convert existing turbine-powered aircraft to zero-emission propulsion. The first aircraft for conversion by Dovetail will be a Cessna Grand Caravan in Australia.
Graphic: Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander 10 in Air Nostrum branding