Why is  Santayana relevant to United’s investment in ZeroAvia?

Santayana quote past and present
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 Santayana quote and United’s purchase of shares of ZeroAvia

Boeing once conglomerated P&W with United and other airlines

Sale of B-247 to United and not others resulted in disintegration

The above quote came from noted American/Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás. Santayana is popularly known for insightful aphorisms, such as this wisdom about history.

United announced a $35 million to acquire an equity stake in hydrogen-electric engine developer ZeroAvia. That heal harkens back almost 100 years to a similar commercial alliance which marked a major milestone in the evolution of commercial aviation and aerospace manufacturing.

UA CEO Scott Kirby and Age of Flight history book

United’s CEO Scott Kirby, as with all new United employees, must have read the company’s history The Age of Flight. That text begins with 1927 when airline started flying and traces its growth like the other disrupters of the existing transportation system. On February 1, 1929, William Boeing of the Boeing Airplane Company  and Fred Rentschler, president of Pratt & Whitney engines, merged and acquired United. The new consolidated company was named United Aircraft and Transport Corporation.  UATC assembled other airlines, propeller and airframe manufacturers.

This organization designed the most innovative aircraft of its time—the Boeing 247–  “first such aircraft to fully incorporate advances such as all-metal (anodized aluminumsemi monocoque construction, a fully cantilevered wing, and retractable landing gear. Other advanced features included control surface trim tabs, an autopilot and de-icing boots for the wings and tailplaneBoeing sold the first 60 247s, an unprecedented $3.5 million order, to its affiliated airline, Boeing Air Transport (part of the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, UATC), at a unit price of $65,000. TWA (Transcontinental & Western Air) also ordered the 247, but UATC declined the order, which resulted in TWA President Jack Frye setting out the requirements for a new airliner and funding Don Douglas to design and build the Douglas DC-B-247 and DC-31 prototype. Douglas eventually developed the design into the DC-3.

In addition to the political negativity caused by the Air Mail Scandal of 1934, the Justice Department ordered the disintegration of UATC largely based on the B-247 exclusive deal’s impact on United’s competitors.

Mr. Kirby broadcast that UA’s share in ZeroAvia was intended to benefit all airlines efforts to decarbonize their flights. It will be interesting to see how the successful hydrogen-electric engines, when certificated, will be sold to United and other airlines.

Possible Hydrogen airlines



United Airlines Invests $35 Million In ZeroAvia (Hydrogen-Electric Engines)

testing of hydrogen as a source of airplane power

United Airlines is spending $35 million to acquire an equity stake in hydrogen-electric engine developer ZeroAvia[1]. Hydrogen-electric engines use electricity created by a chemical reaction in a fuel cell to power an electric motor, instead of burning fossil fuel. This investment is part of United’s goal of being 100% green by reducing GHG remissions by 100% by 2050, without relying on carbon offsets.

This agreement also gives United the ability to purchase up to 10 zero-emission, 100% hydrogen engines that would be used on United Express regional jet aircraft by 2028. United is conditionally purchasing 50 ZeroAvia ZA2000-RJ engines, with an option for 50 more, which would be enough to power 50 twin-engine aircraft. Specifically, these engines could be retrofitted on existing United Express aircraft, including the premium 50-seat CRJ-550.

CRJ hydrogen plane

The first step for ZeroAvia is to develop the ZA600 engine, which can be used on 19-seat aircraft. The aim is to have these in commercial service by 2024. From there the company is hoping to develop hydrogen-electric propulsion for progressively larger aircraft.

Here’s how United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby described this initiative:

“Hydrogen-electric engines are one of the most promising paths to zero-emission air travel for smaller aircraft, and this investment will keep United out in front on this important emerging technology. United continues to look for opportunities to not only advance our own sustainability initiatives but also identify and help technologies and solutions that the entire industry can adopt.

Today’s announcement of United investing in hydrogen-electric aircraft is far from the first such initiative from the airline. In the past year or so, United has also announced plans to purchase 200 electric air taxis19-seat electric jets, and supersonic jets, among other initiatives.UA BOOM SST plane

Bottom line

United Airlines is investing $35 million in ZeroAvia, a hydrogen-electric engine manufacturer. This also includes a conditional order for up to 100 of these engines, with the hope of them being able to power United Express aircraft by 2028. This is United’s latest investment in the future of aviation and reducing emissions.

United’s investment in all of these products is no doubt partly about optics, and about making United seem more innovative and cutting-edge. At the same time, these are positive and needed investments, because aviation is headed this way. Airlines like United investing money in and putting faith in these products improves the odds of these becoming a reality.

UA order


[1] ZeroAvia secures £12.3m UK Government grant


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