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Local airline's ambitious plan to electrify its fleet by 2027

Enterprise
 A Safarilink plane. [Safarilink]

Safarilink Aviation has partnered with an American company to have a fully electric fleet by 2027. The conversion will be spearheaded by Surf Air Mobility in conjunction with Cessna Grand Caravan maker, Textron.

The announcement was made by Safarilink CEO Alex Avedi during the company’s 20th anniversary last week.

According to the deal, any new Cessna Caravans ordered by the company will be fully electric while existing ones will be retrofitted to run on battery power rather than on fossil fuels. The move aligns with the government’s recent announcement to transition from fossil fuels into renewable energy sources by 2030.

The company operates four Dash-8 (two 52-seater and two 37-seater) planes and eight Cessna Caravans and runs domestic scheduled flights to destinations within Kenya and Tanzania.

“It’s a game-changer, just like the advent of the electric car. We will use no fuel, no engine noise, and attain zero carbon emissions. There is a lot of focus in aviation as far as pollutants are involved and the move to electric engines shows our commitment to the environment. We will start converting the smaller aircraft before moving to the larger Dash-8 planes,” said Avedi.

Currently, the engines are undergoing the certification process to see if they meet all safety parameters required to fly in the heat and dust common in Africa.

Surf Air is developing the Supplemental Type Certification for both hybrid and fully-electric variants of the Cessna Grand Caravan. Besides the 100 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, Surf Air targets to reduce up to 50 per cent direct operating costs for the fully-electric powertrain, a move it believes will revolutionize the aviation landscape around the world.

“The Caravan is an amazing aircraft on which to develop our electrified powertrain. We believe Africa is at the cutting edge of regional air mobility,” said Stan Little, CEO of Surf Air Mobility.

According to Avedi, flight tests will be done on non-commercial flights before passengers can be allowed to use the aircraft. He dispelled any safety fears as there are many redundancies in place to mitigate such safety concerns.

The company was the first in Africa and the Middle East to receive the International Aviation Safety Assessment (AISA).   

“KCAA must be convinced that the new system will work and assure the flying public of the planes’ safety. It should be noted that 80 per cent of our destinations are wildlife conservation key tourism hotspots in the region. Having electric engines is therefore a natural fit for us,” said Avedi.

Avedi did not disclose the capital costs associated with the conversion, citing confidentiality clauses. However, he stated that while the initial costs may be high, the move will eventually become cost-effective since electric engines have few moving parts hence are easier to maintain.

“While batteries have range and weight limitations, they can fly for longer intervals before major maintenance. We estimate that a single battery can power the plane for about two hours while the average range of most of our journeys is 45 minutes either way from or to Wilson Airport,” he said.

The partnership seeks to expand Surf Air Mobility’s global footprint while leading the energy transition to electrified, green aviation. The company is the exclusive partner to Textron in electrifying the Cessna Caravan, a workhorse in regional aviation.

The Los Angeles-based firm is keen to build its business in Africa, a key market for the Caravan and where transportation providers are quickly adopting innovative mobility solutions.

Kenya is one of the countries with the highest number of Cessna Caravans in Africa and the American firm hopes more operators out of Wilson Airport will come on board after the success of the pioneering project. Currently, this technology is not viable for big commercial jets due to weight limitations and flight hours.

“Since we will do the retrofitting here in Kenya, we will become a centre for excellence in green aviation, and through knowledge and skills transfer, help other operators in the region convert to electric engines.

The aviation industry in Kenya got some reprieve through this year’s Finance Bill that proposed to exempt aircraft importers from paying the 16 per cent Value Added Tax (VAT), removing the 3.5 per cent import declaration fee and the two per cent Railway Development Levy.

The move caused an uproar as Kenyans wondered why such levies were being removed from the industry while taxation from ordinary Kenyans was going up.

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