Advanced Air Mobility:

Challenges and Opportunities for Airports & Vertiports

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.

Paul WheelerPaul Charles Wheeler is an internationally recognized Advanced Air Mobility (AAM)/Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) subject matter expert with 25 years’ experience and has been recognized by Commercial UAV Expo and InterDrone as one of the world’s top drone visionaries. His background in aviation, highway transportation, and technology has given him a unique perspective on how to innovative solutions across industries as he’s skilled in AAM coordination and collaboration across industries, multimodal integration, UAS program creation and management, UAS complex flight planning, and mission operations. Paul provides expertise in conducting workshops, policy and integration, studies corridors for passenger air mobility, and creates simulations and analytics.
Gaël Le Bris, C.M., P.E.Gaël Le Bris, C.M., P.E. is a Senior Aviation Planner and Senior Technical Principal with WSP USA. He is an engineer and holds two master’s degrees in aviation. Mr. Le Bris supervises aviation system and airport planning projects, and provide expertise in aviation engineering, operations and safety in the U.S. and abroad. Prior to joining WSP, Mr. Le Bris was the Airside Development Manager at Paris-CDG Int’l. Airport, France. He has conducted various research projects in airport engineering, airfield operations and aviation safety. He is a committee member of Airport Consultants Council (ACC), SAE International, and the Transportation Research Board (TRB). He has authored over 50 articles and publications. He is the principal investigator for ACRP’s Electric Aircraft on the Horizon – An Airport Perspective as well as ENAC Alumni’s The Future of Airports: A Vision of 2040 and 2070.