A VoloCity air taxi by Volocopter is pictured at Pontoise airfield in Cormeilles-en-Vexin, near Paris, France, November 10, 2022.
Benoit Tessier | Reuters
A world with flying vehicles, just like the Sixties sitcom The Jetsons, could be closer than you’re thinking that.
Firms across the U.S., including several startups, are developing electric air taxis that aim to take cars off the road and put people within the sky.
Business airlines, specifically, are investing in any such technology to make trips to and from the airport shorter and faster for consumers.
In October, Delta Air Lines joined the list of airlines backing EV technology startups, with a $60 million investment in Joby Aviation, an organization developing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs), intended to operate as an air taxi service.
In 2021, when Joby announced its plan to launch its Uber-like air taxis by 2024, it generated criticism from industry analysts on the power to launch by that date. But Delta’s investment in Joby is a five-year partnership to operate eVTOLs exclusively in Delta’s network.
United Airlines can be partnering with a Swedish-based startup, Heart Aerospace, to have electric aircraft flying regional routes by 2030, adding to 2 other eVTOL investments from the airline. One is for $15 million with Eve Air Mobility for 200 aircraft, and one other for $10 million with Archer Aviation for 100 eVTOLs.
American Airlines invested $25 million in Vertical Aerospace, a U.K.-based company, with an order for 50 aircraft.
Air taxis could hit markets within the 2030s
While major airlines enter agreements with global startups, it is important to recollect these are conditional. It will depend on the certification of those aircraft and how briskly firms can manufacture them, said Savanthi Syth, managing director of equity research, covering global airlines and mobility at Raymond James.
Once these aircraft get certified and begin ramping up production, Syth said the potential market size largely will depend on how close firms can get eVTOLs to where consumers are.
“Initially, eVTOLs are presupposed to replace your personal automobile,” Syth said. “But it will be different for people, based on where eVTOLs are going to be.”
Firms envision eVTOLs using existing infrastructure to operate, resembling creating “vertistops,” where aircraft land on top of buildings in urban areas to charge between short distances, or “vertiports,” which utilize regional airports to charge between longer distances, roughly over 100 miles.
If firms can put vertistops and vertiports near consumers in residential areas, then the market size might be large, Syth said.
“We expect that you will see small amounts of [eVTOL] operations starting within the 2025 timeframe, with certifications hopefully happening in 2024,” Syth said. “But so that you can see a variety of aircraft flying overhead, it’s probably going to be more likely into the 2030s.”
Airlines profit from eVTOL investments
While airlines face cost and availability challenges in becoming more sustainable, investments in eVTOLs is one effort where airlines can attempt to offset carbon emissions, said Beau Roy, senior managing director at FTI Consulting, who makes a speciality of the aviation industry.
“Airlines haven’t got a variety of [sustainable] decisions. The largest option is sustainable aviation fuel, but, last 12 months, perhaps one out of each 1,000 gallons of jet fuel might be found as SAF,” Roy said. “Airlines are getting aggressive with where else they will invest.”
While eVTOLs initially offer airlines an addition to their ESG portfolio, additionally they provide them the power to capitalize on replacing long automobile drives with a flight option for consumers.
“An interesting use-case [of eVTOLs] is occupied with getting people out of cars for the 100-, 200-, or 300-mile trips that we take,” Roy said. “Near 200 million trips per 12 months are in cars for 100- to 500-mile distances.”
Roy said airlines will not be only taking cars off the road for the advantage of the environment, but they’re opening the door for consumers to pay for a faster and more efficient alternative to cars.
“Airlines are , ‘How will we get the price and ease of use more widely available to people?'” Roy said. “If it’s low-cost enough and the time savings is important enough, people will change their behavior and get out of cars.”
Flying out of regional airports from smaller towns will not be largely seen across the country anymore, Roy said. Most traffic occurs at the main airports, so airlines can benefit from emerging tech like eVTOLs and existing regional airports for industry growth.
Delta and Joby are planning for eVTOLs to hit major cities, like Recent York City and Los Angeles, for its initial launch.
Ranjan Goswami, senior vice chairman of customer experience design at Delta, said the corporate set its sights on NYC and LA due to the prolific congestion and traffic in these dense metropolitan areas, and since of how outstanding Delta is in these markets.
“The large cities are where you have got the best-use cases and essentially the most people to utilize [an eVTOL] service,” Goswami said. “It is also where you have got economies of scale to, ultimately, help bring the price reachable to more people.”
Goswami said attending to and from the airport are among the most stressful parts of traveling, and eVTOLs will alleviate that have.
“We’re not going to refer to the market right away about price points, but we consider it must be an accessible price point,” Goswami said. “Unlike helicopters, that are so expensive, the goal is to make [eVTOLs] reachable and reasonably priced to the traveling public.”
While Roy says he’s optimistic about seeing eVTOLs in the subsequent decade, these air taxis won’t launch as quickly as startups and airlines might hope.
Along with getting these aircraft produced after which certified, Roy said utilizing existing infrastructure to accommodate eVTOLs can be a hurdle.
If eVTOLs land on rooftops, Roy said, there’s a variety of construction and latest infrastructure that goes into converting roofs into vertistops. With eVTOLs operating on electric batteries, these buildings must also generate substantial power and electricity for charging stations.
“These aircraft are going to work, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] will do their job to ensure they work,” said Roy. “It’s just going to take some time to get from where we’re today to where we’ll should be.”