Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
From offsetting to insetting: Harbour Air’s innovative approach to sustainable aviation

From offsetting to insetting: Harbour Air’s innovative approach to sustainable aviation

In this episode we talk to Harbour Air’s Bert Van Der Stege, Erika Holtz, Suzanne Bremski.

In this episode of our ‘Sustainability in the Air’ podcast, SimpliFlying’s CEO Shashank Nigam speaks to Harbour Air’s CEO Bert Van Der Stege; Engineering and Quality Manager Erika Holtz; and Head of Digital and Customer Experience Suzanne Bremski.

As the largest seaplane airline in North America, Harbour Air has a strong track record of prioritising sustainability. It was the first airline to introduce carbon offsetting in 2007. The airline was also the first to operate an electric plane in 2019 within its e-plane initiative, and has committed to building the world’s first all-electric commercial fleet. Harbour Air’s unique operating conditions, including short flight times and low altitudes, make it well-suited for the transition to an all-electric airline.

Here are the key highlights of the conversation:

  • Harbour Air’s electric aviation initiatives (3:25)

  • Challenges and infrastructure requirements (6:47)

  • Consumer response and sustainability efforts (16:24)

  • Using insetting to combat GHG emissions (19:00)

  • Collaborations and future plans (25:32)

  • The future of regional transportation (30:35)

  • Battery technology and range (34:19)

  • Rapid Fire! (37:11)

Keep reading for a quick overview of the episode.

Why Harbour Air’s insetting approach matters

The aviation sector is hard to decarbonise. Due to the sheer lack of tangible solutions, airlines have conventionally relied on offsetting to deal with their emissions. However, offsetting measures can be quite contentious, if not completely ineffective. Therefore, there is a pressing need for airlines to resort to more robust emissions reduction solutions.

Bremski explains that offsetting is an appropriate solution only for emissions that are very difficult to abate. Harbour Air has switched to an insetting approach for emissions associated with their operational aviation fuel.

Insetting focuses on doing “more good rather than less bad within one’s value chain”. For Harbour Air, insetting involves “actions or investing within our own operations production or value chain”.

Bremski elaborates that this includes focusing the airline’s investment efforts on its e-plane initiative. To fund this initiative, Harbour Air has introduced a sustainability fee on every scheduled flight and scenic tour. The proceeds from this fee are channelled directly into the research and development of the airline’s e-plane project.

By adopting this approach, Harbour Air is focusing on long-term emission reduction capabilities within their own operations and value chain, rather than relying on external offset projects.

5 ways Harbour Air is accelerating electric aviation

1. The e-plane initiative

Back in 2019, Habour Air partnered with magniX, a global leader in electric aviation propulsion, to develop the electric Beaver (eBeaver) by retrofitting their de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver with magniX’s electric propulsion technology. The flight was piloted by Harbour’s Air founder and former-CEO Greg McDougall

To date, Harbour Air has conducted 78 test flights of its eBeaver, which have yielded valuable insights and learning opportunities, says Holtz. One of the key lessons learned from the test flights was the importance of managing battery temperature differentials, especially when charging the aircraft on the water. Harbour Air also gained a deeper understanding of the infrastructure requirements for electric aviation, including the need for additive heat management during charging and flight.

2. Collaborations and partnerships

Harbour Air’s electric aviation journey reached a significant milestone on Earth Day 2024 when the airline signed a letter of intent (LOI) with magniX to purchase up to 50 magni650 electric engines and a commitment to support the certification process for both Canadian and American regulatory bodies.

This collaboration represents a major step towards Harbour Air’s goal of electrifying their fleet and advancing sustainable aviation in the region. Van Der Stege also emphasises the importance of partnerships with battery suppliers, such as EP Systems and H55, to ensure the successful development and integration of battery technology into their aircraft.

3. Retrofitting existing aircraft and future prospects

Holtz believes that retrofitting existing aircraft will be a key strategy for decarbonising aviation. While clean-sheet designs will undoubtedly offer improved efficiency and range, converting the existing fleet is necessary to make a significant impact in the short to medium term. 

Even though electric aircraft offer a promising sustainable alternative, full electrification may not be feasible for all aircraft, especially larger planes like the Boeing 737, says Holtz. However, the technology currently being developed for smaller aircraft can be scaled up and adapted for certain phases of long-haul flights such as taxiing or to even reduce the noise during take-off, she adds.

“We’re likely never going to fully electrify a [Boeing] 737. But… there’s a significant amount of work that can be done in the large aircraft category that doesn’t have to embrace fully electric, but can embrace pieces of the technology that we have developed.”

4. Battery technology and range

Currently, the battery technology used by Harbour Air allows for a flight time of 30 minutes plus reserves, which is suitable for most of their routes. However, Van Der Stege acknowledges that two of their destinations, Seattle and Powell River, have flight times of around 50 minutes and may not be initially feasible for electric planes.

Holtz explains that while battery technology is continuously improving, the airline needs to freeze the design at a certain point for certification purposes. The team is currently working with a battery energy density of around 250 watt-hours per kilogram, but they expect significant advancements in the coming years, potentially reaching 350 watt-hours per kilogram or more.

Once the certification pathway has been established, Harbour Air anticipates being able to incorporate newer battery technologies relatively quickly, enabling longer flight times and increased payload capacity. This will allow the airline to expand the range of routes serviced by electric planes and further reduce their carbon footprint.

5. Customer response and market potential

Harbour Air’s unique position in the market, serving smaller coastal communities with short-haul flights, makes them well-suited to adopt electric aviation technology, says Van Der Stege. The airline recognises the potential for electric planes to improve transportation accessibility and connectivity for these regions while contributing to a greener economy.

The response from customers and the community to Harbour Air’s electric aviation initiatives has been resoundingly positive, he notes. By offering sustainable aviation options, Harbour Air aims to meet the growing demand for eco-friendly travel and set an example for other airlines to follow.

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‘Sustainability in the Air’ is the world’s leading podcast dedicated to sustainable aviation. Through in-depth conversations with top aviation leaders, we break through the clutter and provide a clear roadmap for a net-zero future.

Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
Every week, Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, talks to airline, airport, travel and technology executives to help make sense of the many paths to net zero, for an industry that is one of the hardest to decarbonize.
Whether you're a frequent flier, an airline executive or just love travelling, if you care about sustainable global travel, then welcome aboard.