A company that wants to be the “Boeing of sustainable and coastal travel” will test its planes in Tampa Bay.
Regent, a Boston-based aerospace company, announced Thursday that it chose Tampa to test its electric glider. It should be on the market by 2025, said general manager Billy Thalheimer. Tampa Bay Times, with Tampa being a prime candidate for future routes to other cities along Florida’s west coast.
“Regent is really about enabling connectivity on coastal routes and simultaneously providing that pathway for the future where we can reduce our carbon emissions,” Thalheimer said.
So what is a paraglider? Think of it as a hybrid boat and plane.
It sits on docks like a boat and can float in no-wake areas. After leaving a busy port, it can take off into the air and fly over water at speeds of up to 180 mph. And it’s battery-operated, Thalheimer said.
In the aviation industry, it is known as the “wing-in-ground effect vehicle”. WIG planes aren’t new, but some are known to have poor wave tolerance and need to launch into the sky from a dock, according to Thalheimer. This makes them less ideal for commercial travel.
But Regent’s sea glider will use hydrofoils – or underwater wings – to fly over waves with speeds between 20 and 40 mph before taking off, Thalheimer said.
“They can’t be operated in crowded ports, and so the hydrofoil is really the key to unlocking it,” he said.
When Regent’s team was looking for a site to test hydrofoil technology, Thalheimer said Tampa Bay ticked all the boxes. It offered a wide and deep harbor, mild weather all year round, developed wharf infrastructure, and local leaders ready to help.
A small-scale prototype of the sea glider will begin testing early next year. The first sea gliders for commercial use will be able to accommodate around 12 passengers. Regent plans to develop a larger version that can accommodate around 50 to 100 passengers.
Tampa is also a strong candidate to host the first sea glider routes, Thalheimer said.
“We are thrilled not only to host the technology demonstrator tests, but also that our city will be one of the first coastal routes served by gliders in 2025 and beyond,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, in a press release.
It is unclear what it would cost passengers to purchase a ticket for a glider route. Like other airline manufacturers, Regent would not decide ticket prices, but would sell the aircraft to carriers. Thalheimer said the glider will reduce costs for carriers because it runs on electricity.
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“We would expect some of the cost savings to be passed on for sure and we would expect ticket prices to be much closer to a ferry or a car than a plane,” said Thalheimer.
Southern Airways Express, a Palm Beach-based charter carrier, has pre-ordered 20 electric gliders in a $250 million deal, Regent announced earlier this month. Southern Airways Express currently offers scheduled flights from Tampa to Destin, among other destinations.
“We plan not only to integrate sea gliders into our existing air transport networks at coastal airports, but also to offer new direct city center to city center connections along the coastal corridors,” said Stan Little, CEO of Southern Airways, in a statement.
Seagliders can fly from Tampa to St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Fort Myers with current battery technology, Thalheimer said. He added that recent advances in electric car batteries could make routes to Panama City, Key West or even Havana possible in the future.
A trip to Key West would take about an hour and 10 minutes in a glider, Thalheimer said.
Tampa Bay is a historic site for commercial aviation. In 1914, the world’s first commercial flight took off from St. Petersburg to Tampa. Castor said the city wants to continue this tradition.
“It’s amazing that over 100 years later there’s still utility in seaplane-type operations out of Tampa,” Thalheimer said. “Except now, instead of crossing the bay, we’re talking about how we can service the whole coast.”