In recent weeks, the regional airline Ravn Alaska has been positioning itself as a champion of green aviation. On June 8, it was announced that the Anchorage-based company had signed a letter of intent (LOI) for 50 small electric short take-off and landing (eSTOL) aircraft from Airflow Inc., with Ravn CEO Rob McKinney asserting that the deal would expand the company’s routes while meeting “rising demands of our customers to travel with the smallest carbon footprint possible.” On July 14, the company was announced as a customer for five conversion kits from Universal Hydrogen, which will integrate Universal’s modular hydrogen capsule technology and hydrogen powertrain into Ravn’s Dash 8 turboprop fleet.
The agreements have generated positive publicity for Ravn as well as its startup partners, both of which are years away from launching commercial products. But it’s not obvious that these LOIs — which do not publicly specify contract values — are actually viable business deals.
Under its current ownership, Ravn Alaska, which flies Dash 8s to about a dozen destinations, has been operating for less than one year. The original Ravn Air Group, which included four separate air carriers, filed for bankruptcy in April 2020 after accruing $90 million in debt. The company’s assets were sold largely at auction, except for Part 121 operators Corvus Airlines and PenAir, which went in private sale to FLOAT Air Shuttle in July.
PenAir’s certificate was subsequently surrendered to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Corvus was rebranded as the current Ravn Alaska. The new company conducted its first scheduled flights in early December. At that point, according to updated federal databases and information published by the Washington Post, it had been approved for over $17 million in crucial Covid relief funds; by April 2021, it was approved for $20 million more.
Prior to purchasing Corvus and PenAir, FLOAT sought to establish an “urban air mobility” service in the Los Angeles area using Cessna Grand Caravans operated by Southern Airways. FLOAT announced its partnership with Southern for a “revolutionary, one-of-a-kind aviation commuter experience” in November 2019, but paused service due to the pandemic shortly after initiating operation in February 2020.
McKinney was a co-founder of FLOAT before becoming CEO of Ravn Alaska. He previously spent eight years as CEO and president of Oregon-based SeaPort Airlines, which he left seven months after its subsidiary, Wings of Alaska, was involved in a fatality and multiple injury crash near Juneau. Listing over $10 million in debt, SeaPort filed for bankruptcy the same day it announced McKinney’s resignation, in February 2016.
Ravn Air’s other principals include entrepreneurs Tom Hsieh, another co-founder of FLOAT, and Josh Jones. Jones was a co-founder of Dreamhost and is a self-described “bitcoin billionaire.” Hsieh most recently founded FlyCoin, a bitcoin loyalty rewards program and Ravn subsidiary.
Just three weeks after the Airflow LOI announcement, on June 28, Ravn inadvertently made public a video it intended only for employees. The video contained a direct message from McKinney who revealed the company’s intention to develop a new “low cost carrier model using narrow-body jets, specifically 757s.” The new operation, Northern Pacific Airways, would fly initially to Asian destinations, including Tokyo and Seoul, and Lower 48 cities including Orlando, Newark, Las Vegas, and Oakland.
While stressing no plans to pull out of Alaska, the video did not discuss projected costs. It was taken down after discovery a day later but in a subsequent interview with Alaska Public Media, McKinney exuded confidence that Northern Pacific would not take on “excessive debt,” and said Ravn Alaska was “definitely shooting for 2022” to launch the proposed year-round trans-Pacific service.
Two weeks later, Universal Hydrogen announced Ravn Alaska as the first domestic airline customer for its hydrogen conversion kits. In a press release, Universal Hydrogen co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko said that “Ravn is thriving under its new ownership and it’s impressive to work with a team that’s committed to making forward-looking choices that ensure their growth is sustainable.”
A challenging business case
Ravn faces a number of challenges to realizing its ambitious plans. For example, there are presently just over 300 Part 135 operators in Alaska, most of whom would compete on some level with Ravn’s plans for its Airflow aircraft.
Since its purchase of Ravn Air Group’s assets did not include that company’s lucrative Part 135 operator, Hageland Aviation, the current Ravn Alaska has not participated in this segment of Alaska’s market. Other companies, many with decades of Alaskan experience, absorbed Hageland’s market share in the wake of the bankruptcy and showed immediate gains in freight and mail business. Just how Ravn fits an untested, unknown aircraft into this highly competitive environment is a question that company management has not addressed.
Airflow is developing both four- and nine-passenger versions of its eSTOL aircraft, but has yet to build a full-scale model of either. The company said that its proof-of-concept aircraft is “currently in the detailed design and fabrication stage.” Presently, the smaller version is targeting a range of 250 miles (400 kilometers) plus reserves; the larger, 500 miles (800 km) plus reserves. In the announcement of their LOI, Airflow and Ravn did not specify which of the models Ravn will be purchasing, but the average distance to Ravn’s current destinations is 418 miles (672 km).
As most Alaskan airports routinely endure extreme weather, Airflow’s descriptions of aircraft performance in poor weather and icing conditions are of particular interest. The state is often used for cold weather testing as it was most recently when Boeing sent the 777X to Fairbanks. When asked about its cold weather testing plans in light of Ravn’s interest, Airflow did not provide specifics, but said: “We intend to follow standard industry procedures for flight into known icing (FIKI) testing. Our airplane will be certified for instrument flight rules operations. As you know, poor weather can dramatically impact an aircraft’s ability to fly — this is particularly true of helicopters and the rash of proposed eVTOLs in development. Our aircraft will have improved dependability in those conditions and will be a superior choice for a variety of operators as a result.”
Pilot-in-command experience is another historic concern in Alaska; three prominent commercial accidents in the last two years involved pilots with low flight time in the aircraft and resulted in eight fatalities. Airflow, which claims that even its larger aircraft will be able to take off and land in as little as 250 feet (76 meters), says it is developing a Virtual Tailhook “pilot assistance” system that will enable “precision take-off and landing of short runways independent of pilot experience and skill level.” However, it has not provided any details as to how this proprietary hardware and software package will actually work.
These are details that will matter if and when Ravn puts the aircraft into service, but that might not happen anytime soon. While the Northern Pacific Airways news has garnered big interest, it’s worth noting that in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, McKinney took a completely different stance than the one he used with Alaska Public Media, saying that the plan “might not happen at all.” When talking to Alaska’s News Source, he added, “it’s an idea right now.” It remains to be seen whether Ravn’s green aviation ambitions are more than just ideas as well.