By Paul Wheeler and Gaël Le Bris
From coping with workforce shortages to accommodating the post-pandemic surge in spring air travel, airport executives have their hands full now. So, the idea of taking time and energy away from their pressing day-to-day concerns to focus on air travel innovations that may be 10 to 15 years away can be challenging.
In the case of advanced air mobility (AAM), a prudent investment of research and planning now might likely yield long-term advantages as these new modes of travel take hold.
Advanced air mobility is a broad term for new air travel services that will be provided by emerging classes of aerial vehicles, mostly small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) and air taxis, powered by electricity and capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) or short takeoff and landing (STOL).
At its most basic, AAM will provide point-to-point, on-demand services between airports, city centers, and smaller communities. An example of urban air mobility (UAM) operated with existing technologies is the helicopter service from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport. However, AAM will see conventional helicopter turbines replaced by clean, climate-friendly electric propulsion systems. In fact, Blade, the firm that operates the flights to JFK, has announced a long-term goal of using advanced quiet, carbon-neutral electric aircraft.
But the possible applications of AAM are much broader than the first and last miles from the airport. Electric VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft that require only small rooftop pads — or “vertiports” — for landing and departure, could replace and expand regional flights, open new links between metro areas, supplement rapid transit systems, augment existing ground-based taxi and ride-sharing services and more. Basically, AAM will create new opportunities for intra-city and inter-city aerial services, also known as urban and regional air mobility, respectively.
While the ultimate costs of AAM services cannot be accurately forecast at this point, OEMs in the eVTOL aircraft space promise significantly lower operating and maintenance costs over combustion turbines; yet realizing the potential cost efficiencies will require commercial-scale production that is still years away. If these aircraft deliver, they could make air travel more affordable.
Even given the years-long forecast in airport master planning, it is not too early to pay attention to AAM developments. On the policy front, local governments in California, Colorado, Florida, Utah, Washington, and Texas are exploring development or expansion of regulations that account for these new technologies and provide for their emergence. In Los Angeles, city agencies are developing UAM policies in anticipation of greater adoption, and a parallel UAM partnership funded by Hyundai Urban Air Mobility is underway in LA. In Tampa, local and state governments are collaborating on a unified review and permitting system for AAM.
At a minimum, airport managers should find out about such initiatives in their region and become engaged.
As AAM advances, a host of aviation and airport management issues will come into play: How will eVTOL aircraft interact with conventional takeoff and landing aircraft? Will vertiports perform TSA screening to streamline airport transfers or will passengers disembark outside secure areas?
Discussions about AAM, even at this early aspirational stage, should include urban planners, metropolitan planning organizations, transit agencies, community groups and other stakeholders. New vertiports and AAM services will bring noise and traffic impacts—as well as opportunities to implement transit-oriented mixed-use development. So early community buy-in will be important.
One major issue on the horizon is how an AAM service provider can secure the necessary rights of way to conduct flight operations from privately-owned rooftops, as well as protect the airspace of their vertiports. Without adequate ordinances or codes, an adjacent property developer may build in an AAM operator’s airspace.
AAM offers vast promise for carbon-neutral air travel that is above and beyond what could once have only been conceived of in science fiction. Now AAM is rapidly moving from high concept to commercial reality. Airport managers should engage now with this emerging service category to ensure it develops in compatible and complementary ways and offers the maximum benefits to airports and their stakeholders.
Code of Conduct & Terms
Duty of Care