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United Airlines puts $10 million behind plan to shuttle customers by electric aircraft

Kevin Chang

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

United Airlines gave a $10 million deposit to a startup developing electric aircraft — all for the goal of shuttling customers to and from the airport by air rather than gridlocked roadways.

It’s not clear when or if the plan will come to fruition, as Archer, the company developing the electric air taxis, is still in the development phase. However, the company said Wednesday that’s it’s finishing the design of its production model. Archer estimates the first of its four-seater helicopters could be in operation by 2024.

California-based Archer, which was founded in 2018, has raised nearly a billion dollars, according to analytics company Crunchbase. It refers to its aircraft as an eVTOL, or “electric vertical takeoff and landing” configuration. The company states they’ll be able to travel up to 60 miles at up to 150 miles per hour. The aircraft is expected to lift off much like a helicopter, and it’ll rotate its propellers from providing vertical to horizontal thrust while airborne, and then rely on conventional wings to keep it in the air as it moves forward.

The company claims its vehicles will be able to land on helicopter pads and more general infrastructure such as the tops of parking garages, according to its website. It also claims the eVTOLs will be quieter than traditional helicopters, clocking in at 45 dBA, which would be softer than the ambient sound of an urban downtown.

Archer is conducting weekly test flights of its earliest vehicle, according to its website, but whether the future includes skies dotted with electric taxis depends on whether Archer can get past several major hurdles. The company has to prove its electric-powered aircraft work can be produced on an affordable scale and get regulatory approval to take to the skies.

Archer CEO Adam Goldstein said on CNN’s New Day on Thursday that he intends to get all the necessary regulatory approval by 2024, citing recent comments from the head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We want to be very careful. We want to be very measured,” FAA acting administrator Billy Nolen said recently on “60 Minutes” about approving aircraft like the ones Archer is producing. But “this is real. This is happening. We’ve come a long way from where we were just a mere decade ago.”

United plans to use the aircraft to transport customers on short trips to and from the airport, citing in one financial filing that it could “reduce CO2 emissions by 47% on a trip between Hollywood and Los Angeles International Airport.” The initial $10 million deposit is for 100 of the vehicles, with the overall deal expected to total $1 billion if Archer can deliver on its promises.

“These are trips that are less than 100 miles and we’ll use these aircraft to replace trips on the ground that are taking 60 to 90 minutes,” Goldstein said, citing the trek from Manhattan to Newark airport in New Jersey as an example.

A United spokesperson, however, notes that the Hollywood to LAX and the Manhattan to Newark routes are just an example, and United has not yet laid out specific plans for where it will roll out the service.

Still, there may be other hurdles. Archer will need to find a large enough customer base that can afford its services, scale its business, sell the public on the safety of its aircraft, and, of course, do it all without running out of cash.

United, which has billed its partnership with Archer as part of its effort to be a carbon neutral company by 2050, first touted its plans to help get the aircraft off the ground in February 2021, and they set up a joint committee to allow the companies to share resources.

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