The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

The AirCraft Company Unveils Wheelchair-Accessible, Hybrid-Electric Regional Airplane

The AirCraft Company, a new start-up based in Wichita, Kansas, has revealed its plans to produce a hybrid-electric, 30-seat regional airliner. Called the Pangea SY30J, this new aircraft is projected to enter service in 2029. It will be the first in a family of hybrid-electric Pangea airplanes designed to connect small communities that are underserved by commercial aviation and offer more point-to-point travel options—a common theme with new electric and hybrid aircraft. 

But one thing that might set The AirCraft Company apart from its competition is its focus on accessibility and comfort. Not only will the cabin be more spacious with larger seats for “real-size” people, but it will also be able to accommodate passengers’ wheelchairs inside the cabin. This is something no other commercial airliner has done, due in part to space constraints and stringent FAA safety regulations. 

While federal regulations do require airlines to reasonably accommodate passengers with disabilities, battery-powered wheelchairs are too large and heavy to fly in an aircraft cabin and must be stored in the cargo compartment. Because of this, wheelchair-bound passengers must either be carried onto the plane or use a narrow air wheelchair provided by the airline to board an airplane. Upon boarding, they are still required to sit in regular seats that may not suit their needs and can be quite uncomfortable. To make matters worse, wheelchairs transported in cargo compartments are often damaged or lost. This makes flying as a disabled person stressful, inconvenient, and sometimes even humiliating. 

“You need to be able to bring the wheelchair down the aisle and then be able to put that wheelchair in the place of a seat,” Mario Asselin, chairman and co-CEO of The AirCraft Company, told FutureFlight. In principle, this could be accomplished by securing a wheelchair to the cabin floor with strap restraints. However, meeting the FAA’s crashworthiness requirements for such a setup could prove to be a major challenge, because the wheelchairs used today aren’t designed to meet the same safety standards as ordinary airplane seats. 

Conducting crashworthiness tests on every possible type of wheelchair would require a tremendous amount of resources, and the FAA currently does not have the funding to conduct such a testing campaign, according to a report from NPR. Last summer, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced plans to implement new rules that would allow passengers to sit in their own wheelchairs when flying on airplanes, but he acknowledged that this “won’t happen overnight” and could in fact take years to come to fruition. 

In the meantime, The AirCraft Company is looking at several different possibilities for making their airplane more accessible for wheelchair users even before regulators will allow them to stay in their wheelchairs during a flight. “We need to offer space and an easy way to bring them in and out of the airplane,” Asselin said, “so we have a bigger cabin with a 30 seater compared to what's out there or what's planned, and we have room to maneuver wheelchairs inside the airplane.” 

The Pangea SY30J will have a spacious 1-2 seating layout, with single seats on the port side and rows of two on the starboard side, for a total of 30 seats in 10 rows. Its seat pitch—the distance between a point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front of or behind it—will be 36 inches (91 cm). That provides about 6 inches (15 cm) more legroom than the average economy seat on a commercial airliner. And while typical economy seats are about 17 inches wide, seats in the Pangea will be at least 20 inches wide (50 cm), according to Asselin. 

While providing more spacious seating on a typical commercial airliner might imply higher ticket prices, The AirCraft Company plans to offer more affordable tickets than what’s available today by significantly reducing operating costs. With single-pilot operations and a hybrid-electric propulsion system, the company expects to be able to reduce operating costs by up to 90 percent, according to Asselin. 

The Pangea’s hybrid-electric propulsion system will rely entirely on battery power for flights up to about 250 miles (400 km), producing zero greenhouse gas emissions. A range extender that runs on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will allow the airplane to travel more than twice that distance with reduced emissions. Eventually, The AirCraft Company plans to offer another version of its aircraft with a range extender that runs on hydrogen power rather than SAF, thereby enabling longer zero-emissions flights. 

In speaking with potential airline customers, Asselin said he found that “in North America, they're more aligned with jet fuel and SAF, and Europe is more aligned with hydrogen, and even elsewhere—like New Zealand and Australia—they're also more aligned with hydrogen,” he said. “So the aircraft will be all-electric with a range extender that could use the preferred alternate fuel,” depending on the customer’s preference. The AirCraft Company also plans to offer cargo-carrying and executive versions of the Pangea with different interior configurations. 

In addition to the reduced operating costs and improved accessibility features, another reason the Pangea could be particularly useful is that it can use a relatively short runway—just 3,500 feet long—to take off and land. This means that the Pangea could serve airports where commercial airlines aren’t already operating today. 

A recent NASA study found that 90 percent of the U.S. population lives within 17 miles of an airport with a 3,500-foot runway. However, only 30 of the 5,000+ airports across the nation serve 70 percent of all travelers. The nation’s vast network of airports is drastically underutilized because most commercial airplanes in service today only serve large airports with longer runways. This means that travelers often face long drives to and from major airports despite the fact that there are other airports much closer to their homes and destinations. 

Still in the early stages of development, The AirCraft Company has not yet begun building a prototype of the Pangea aircraft and is still working on fine-tuning the design while running flight simulations. Asselin declined to say how much funding the company has raised and how many people it currently employs. But between its two co-founders, the company already has 65 years of aviation experience under its belt. Asselin, who previously worked as an engineer for Bombardier, co-founded the company with his wife, Sylvie St-Georges, a program integration manager for Bombardier and former flight test team chief at the Bombardier Flight Test Center. Together they founded Asselin, Inc., an aviation company that services Part 23 small airplanes and Part 25 transport category airplanes.