Surf Air Leverages Textron Partnership In Electric Caravan Push

Cessna Caravan

Surf Air Mobility’s powertrain for the Cessna Caravan comes in electric and hybrid-electric variants.

Credit: Surf Air Mobility

Having finalized an exclusive deal with Textron and acquired commuter airline Southern Airways, U.S. startup Surf Air Mobility believes the pieces are in place to accelerate its bid to electrify a substantial portion of the existing global fleet of Cessna Caravans. 

The flurry of recent activity has centered around a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange in late July. Going public was a pre-condition to finalizing the exclusive agreement with Textron—a partnership that will see the OEM promote and market the modified Caravans as an official product line, leveraging extensive customer relationships and a global network of service and support centers.

While the transaction did not directly generate additional capital for Surf Air, it did allow the company to begin accessing a $400 million financing facility from alternative investment group Global Emerging Markets—which, like the Textron deal, was contingent on Surf Air going public—as well as financing from Jetstream Aviation Capital for a fleet order for up to 150 Caravans that was announced alongside the transaction.

“All those things came together to ensure that we would basically have everything that we needed for our business plan, on the condition of us going public,” says Sudhin Shahani, CEO of Surf Air. “We considered going public through an SPAC, but when we looked at the market environment, we concluded that a direct listing would provide the most expedient path to market.”

The company is developing both electric and hybrid-electric powertrains for the Caravan. The all-electric variant will come with a range of 115 mi. (100 nm), while the hybrid system—built around a combustion engine and turbogenerator—will get up to 345 mi. (300 nm). The company plans to place charging stations on each end of routes operated by its electric caravans, while the hybrid variant will not require new infrastructure.

Shahani observes that around 30% of existing Caravan missions would fall within the 115-mi. range of the electric variant, which reduces operating costs up to 50% compared to the conventional Pratt & Whitney PT6-powered Caravan. The hybrid variant, by contrast, could handle most existing Caravan missions, but only has half the operating cost savings of the electric version.

Selling Caravan operators on the retrofits should be easy, Shahani says, pointing to the similar price point between electrification and a routine engine overhaul. “All the 3,000 Caravans out there today should be eligible when they come up for an engine overhaul to instead replace that combustion motor with a hybrid or a fully electric variant,” he says.

“Another key part of the Textron agreement is that they’re not just installing our powertrains in new Caravans—they’re going to market it as an upgrade across their network of service centers globally,” he adds. “Given the option to upgrade and reduce operating costs for the same cost of an engine overhaul, it’s going to be a commercially logical decision for operators to make.”

Surf Air’s acquisition of commuter airline Southern Airways was completed a day prior to its direct listing. In addition to providing scheduled and on-demand services, the airline will function as an R&D platform to prove out and generate interest in the electrified Caravans. The carrier’s sister airline, Hawaiian carrier Mokulele Airlines, also flies short-hop, inter-island missions that will be perfect to demonstrate the capabilities of the electric variant, according to Southern Airways CEO Stan Little. 

“We have this very large platform with which to debut the motor and increase that adoption curve because people can see it put into commercial use,” Little says. “We think it’s the perfect combination of having that R&D element, the on-demand element and North America’s largest fleet of passenger Caravans.”

In addition to operating scheduled and on-demand services, Surf Air plans to continue and expand its existing regional air mobility marketplace platform, in which it connects paying customers with third-party charter operators on short-haul turboprop flights using its integrated software and app. The company expects the platform to serve as a “pipeline” to help onboard other Caravan operators to its electric and hybrid powertrains.

“The parallel path of scheduled service and then on-demand using other operating partners will be what fuels our growth,” Little says. 

Surf Air is targeting early 2026 to obtain its Supplemental Type Certificate for the electric variant, with the hybrid variant expected somewhat afterward, according to Shahani. 

Looking ahead, Shahani says he hopes to use the powertrains developed for the Caravan to power other turboprops powered by the PT6.

“That PT6 lives in a number of different aircraft, so the fact that the technology we’re developing will have applications beyond the Caravan is well understood,” he says. “Of course, that PT6 lives at different power levels in different aircraft, and as batteries get better, more and more aircraft will become addressable to our powertrains.”

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.