How electric air taxis could shake up the aviation industry

A VoloCity air taxi operated by Volocopter at the Pontoise airfield in Cormeil-en-Vexin, near Paris, France on November 10, 2022.

Benoit Tessier | Reuters

A world with flying vehicles, like in the 1960s sitcom The Jetsons, might be closer than you think.

Companies in the US, including several startups, are developing electric air taxis that aim to get cars off the road and lift people into the sky.

Commercial airlines in particular are investing in this type of technology to make travel to and from the airport shorter and faster for customers.

In October, Delta Air Lines joined the list of airlines supporting electric vehicle technology startups with a $60 million investment in Joby Aviation, a company developing electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft designed to operate as an air taxi service.

In 2021, when Joby announced its plan to launch its Uber-like air taxis by 2024, industry analysts criticized the possibility of a launch by that date. But Delta’s investment in Joby is a five-year partnership to operate eVTOL exclusively on the Delta network.

United Airlines is also partnering with Swedish startup Heart Aerospace to launch electric aircraft flying on regional routes by 2030, complementing the airline’s other two investments in eVTOL. One for $15 million with Eve Air Mobility for 200 aircraft and another for $10 million with Archer Aviation for 100 eVTOLs.

American Airlines invested $25 million in the British company Vertical Aerospace, ordering 50 aircraft.

Air taxis could hit the markets in the 2030s

Airlines benefit from investment in eVTOL

While airlines collide cost and availability issues to become more sustainable, investing in eVTOL is one way airlines can try to offset their carbon footprint, said Bo Roy, senior managing director at FTI Consulting who specializes in the aviation industry.

“Airlines don’t have many [sustainable] choice. The biggest option is sustainable jet fuel, but last year perhaps one in every 1,000 gallons of jet fuel could be found as SAF, Roy said. “Airlines are starting to aggressively choose where else they can invest.”

While eVTOLs initially offer airlines an addition to their ESG portfolio, they also give them the opportunity to benefit from replacing long road trips with consumer flying.

“Interesting use case [of eVTOLs] is thinking about getting people out of cars for the 100, 200 or 300 mile trips we do,” Roy said. “About 200 million trips a year are made in cars over distances of 100 to 500 miles.”

Roy said airlines are not only removing cars from routes for the benefit of the environment, but are also making it possible for consumers to pay for a faster and more efficient alternative to cars.

“Airlines are thinking, ‘How can we make cost and ease of use more accessible to people?'” Roy said. “If it’s cheap enough and the time savings are significant enough, people will change their behavior and get out of cars.”

Flights from regional airports from smaller towns are largely non-existent throughout the country, Roy said. Most of the traffic is at major airports, so airlines can use new technologies such as eVTOL and existing regional airports to grow the industry.

Run in major cities but still have hurdles to overcome

Delta and Joby plan to launch eVTOL in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

Ranjan Goswami, senior vice president of customer service design at Delta, said the company was targeting New York and Los Angeles because of the amount of congestion and congestion in these densely populated urban areas, as well as how visible Delta in these markets.

“Big cities are where you have the best use cases and the most people to use. [an eVTOL] Goswami said. “This is also where you get economies of scale to ultimately help make cost affordable to more people.”

Goswami said that getting to and from the airport is one of the most stressful parts of traveling, and eVTOL will make the process easier.

“Right now, we are not going to talk to the market about prices, but we think it should be an affordable price,” Goswami said. “Unlike helicopters, which are so expensive, the goal is to make [eVTOLs] accessible and accessible to the traveling public.”

While Roy says he’s optimistic about the advent of eVTOLs in the next decade, these air taxis won’t launch as quickly as startups and airlines might hope.

In addition to manufacturing and certifying these aircraft, using the existing infrastructure to host eVTOL is also a hurdle, Roy said.

If eVTOLs land on rooftops, it will require a lot of construction and new infrastructure to convert the rooftops into helicopters, Roy said. Because eVTOLs run on electric batteries, these buildings must also generate significant power and electricity for charging stations.

“These planes are going to work and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] will do their job to make sure they work,” Roy said. “It just takes time to get from where we are today to where we need to be.”

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