Brazil's Azul Joins Carriers Planning eVTOL Service

 - August 2, 2021, 10:32 AM
The Lilium Jet eVTOL aircraft will be operated by a single pilot and carry up to six passengers. (Image: Lilium)

Brazil's Azul today became the latest airline to announce plans for eVTOL aircraft operations, placing a provisional order for 220 of Lilium's seven-seat Lilium Jet. The deal is valued at $1 billion, implying a $4,5 million unit price for the all-electric Lilium Jet.

Azul and Lilium intend to co-brand scheduled services in a country that typically has around 100 million domestic airline passengers each year. The new operation is expected to begin in 2025. Brazil is a strong market for business jets and also for chartered helicopter flights, which are commonly used to avoid serious road gridlock in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Under the terms of a commercial agreement that is still to be finalized, Azul is expected to operate and maintain the Lilium Jet fleet and also support the manufacturer’s efforts to secure the necessary type certification and operational approvals in Brazil. Lilium will provide an aircraft health monitoring platform, along with replacement batteries and other spare parts.

The Lilium Jet will be flown by a single pilot and carry up to six passengers on trips of up to 155 miles, cruising at 10,000 feet at speeds of 175 mph. It will be able to take off and land in urban vertiports, as well as at airports where it could provide connections to longer scheduled airline flights.

“Azul is the largest domestic airline in Brazil in terms of cities served and daily departures,” said Azul CEO John Rodgerson. “Our brand presence, our unique route network, and our powerful loyalty program give us the tools to create the markets and demand for the Lilium Jet network in Brazil.”

As part of the trend towards so-called advanced air mobility, several other prominent airlines have recently committed to introducing electric aircraft to their fleets. They appear to be motivated by a desire to make aviation more environmentally sustainable, while also looking to exploit the opportunity to carry small numbers of passengers on short-haul routes in and around urban areas that are not viable with existing aircraft.

In mid-June, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and airliner leasing group Avolon placed the largest order for eVTOL aircraft to date, when they committed to buying up to 1,000 of Vertical Aerospace's VA-X4 model. The transaction is worth up to $4 billion, implying a unit price for the four-passenger aircraft of $4 million. 

American and Avolon, along with Honeywell and Rolls-Royce, are also investing in the UK-based start-up, which announced plans for an initial public offering via a merger with special purpose acquisition company Broadstone. American is investing $25 million, but the other new backers have not disclosed how much capital they are providing. Honeywell and Rolls-Royce are already partners in the program, supporting plans to complete EASA type certification of the VA-X4, which is expected in 2024. Other partners include GKN Aerospace and Solvay.

Under the terms of the preorders placed on June 10, American has provisionally agreed to take 250 aircraft, with options for 100 more. Avolon has committed to 310 aircraft, plus options for a further 190. American intends to work with Vertical Aerospace to develop passenger operations and infrastructure in the U.S. market.

Virgin Atlantic, which is to buy between 50 and 150 aircraft, says it intends to launch a network of short-haul scheduled services in the UK with the aircraft on routes of up to around 120 miles. The services will operate from hubs at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, as well as Manchester. The aircraft is projected to operate at speeds of up to 200 mph and with a range of around 120 miles.

In February, United Airlines and its regional partner Mesa Airlines announced an agreement to buy 200 of Archer's four-passenger eVTOLs. The $1 billion value of the deal implies a unit price of $5 million for the aircraft, which is expected to fly up to 60 miles. The planned services, which are to start in 2024, will mainly carry passengers to and from scheduled airline flights out of major hub airports, like Los Angeles.

Last month, United and Mesa said they are investing in Sweden-based electric aircraft developer Heart Aerospace. Mesa, which is a United Express carrier, said it will purchase 200 of Heart's 19-seat ES-19 fixed wing regional airliners. Finnair also intends to buy 20 ES-19s, which are expected to have a range of around 250 miles.

In September 2020, Japan Airlines announced a partnership with German eVTOL developer Volocopter to jointly offer passenger and cargo urban air mobility services. The carrier, which is an investor in Volocopter, did not confirm whether it intends to purchase any of the company's VoloCity or VoloConnect eVTOL aircraft. Also last year, Japan Airlines said it is working with Bell on air mobility plans but made no commitment to buy the U.S. manufacturer's planned Nexus eVTOL.

Most of the leading eVTOL aircraft developers plan to operate commercial services themselves. For instance, last week, California-based Joby said it has applied for a Part 135 air carrier certificate. One of the company's investors is the Technology Ventures division of the JetBlue airline group.

In June, U.S. regional airline Ravn Alaska said it intends to operate 50 of Airflow's planned hybrid-electric short takeoff and landing aircraft. The unnamed new model is expected to be certified to start commercial operations in 2025.

Lilium already has plans to launch commercial eVTOL services in Europe and in the U.S., starting with plans for a network across Florida. It is aiming to launch operations in 2024, once the Lilium Jet completes type certification, initially under EASA’s jurisdiction in Europe. It has an agreement with business aviation services group Luxaviation to provide operational support.

Brazil is the home market for aircraft manufacturer Embraer, and its Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions division is developing a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft, which will have a range of up to 60 miles. The company recently announced purchase agreements with several prospective operators, including Brazil-based Helisul Aviation and on-demand charter broker Flapper.

Lilium announced the Azul deal early on August 2, a few hours ahead of its Capital Markets Day event. The start-up is pursuing a flotation on New York’s Nasdaq market through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Qell Acquisition Corp.

Once this $830 million deal closes, former Tesla executive Gabrielle Toledano and air transport industry veteran Henri Courpron will join Lilium’s board of directors. Total gross proceeds from the transaction will include $380 million in cash and funds from a $450 million Private Investment in Public Equity (PIPE) investment with backers including Baillie Gifford, BlackRock, Tencent, Ferrovial, LGT/Lightrock, Palantir, FII Institute, and Pimco. The combined company is expected to be valued at around $3.3 billion based on the $10 PIPE share price.

Toledano is currently the chief operating officer of Keystone Strategy. She previously held senior leadership roles at Electronic Arts, Siebel Systems, Comcast Ventures, Microsoft, and Oracle.

Courpron is founder and chairman of Plane View Partners and a former CEO of airliner leasing group ILFC and Airbus North America. He is also a former director of Azul and of Portuguese carrier TAP. Lilium’s board is chaired by Airbus group CEO Tom Enders.

This story is from FutureFlight.aero, a news and information resource developed by AIN to provide objective, independent coverage and analysis of cutting-edge aviation technology, including electric aircraft developments and advanced air mobility.