Airports in the next few years?
Gill Wright, VP Region 2 California Pilots Association
September/October 2020 newsletter
California’s aviation industry has always lead with innovations and creations of new flight technologies that changed the world in profound ways. In 1927 Ryan Air manufactured an experimental aircraft, N-X-211, for Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and showed the world how flight could shrink the distances of our planet. The excitement of Lindbergh’s accomplishment ignited the aviation industry to shrink regional distances. At that time in California, the use of Ford-Tri Motor airplanes to connect metropolitan areas from San Diego to San Francisco, and beyond to Seattle. These passenger aircraft changed the time to travel longer distances, when compared to train travel of that era. Keep in mind there was no interstate highway system in 1927.
A short five years later on December 17th, 1933, California gave birth to a new aircraft, with the first flight of the Douglas DC-1 from Santa Monica airport. This iconic bird represented the evolution of all aluminum airframes, with retractable landing gear, advanced flight control surfaces, and a significant increase of flight range to the air transport industry. The design evolutions of the DC-2 and DC-3 changed the nature of aviation for decades to come, and again shrank the travel times between cities of the world. These transformative events in aviation 90 years ago are very parallel to the growth of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) technologies of today’s innovators.
In the May/June 2020 CalPilots Newsletter, it was articulated how three UAM firms ( JOBY, LILIUM, & VOLOCOPTER) had raised over $1.2 Billion dollars in investor funding to produce their unique VTOL airframes towards commercial flight operations. These three top firms are but a small sample of the much larger, and global effort to reach the ‘air taxi market’ with certificated UAM craft. It is estimated there are over 250+ of various small aircraft in design, build, or flight testing phases, of these advancing aeronautical technologies aircraft around the world. California has its fare share of these developments in and around our State’s airports. There is JOBY, AMPAIRE, SABERWING, XTI, eVATION, XWING, and RELIABLE ROBOTICS, to name a few. All of these firms are diligently refining unique integrations of known aeronautical manufacturing principles with modern materials, advanced electronics, and flight control systems towards an entirely new paradigm of how people and cargo will travel in the atmosphere of our California skies, and the Nation’s airways.
There is a new concept of transportation emerging, know as “Transport as a Service” (TaaS). Where vehicles, both on the ground and in the air, are individually used but not owned, just like well established taxi services, trucks, ships, or aircraft lease companies the world over. Given the economic cost structures of many of these individual VTOL/eVTOL and fixed wing aircraft, plus the complex nature of the
maintenance of these new VTOL/eVTOL aircraft designs, this well established short-term use/lease business practice is establishing a new application in the aviation sector. The shift towards TaaS is in large part driven be the transportation information technologies of the last ten years, best exemplified by UBER, LYFT and other ride sharing services.
For decades the Part 135 Air Charter segment of aviation has well served clients needs to fly between smaller cities on short notice. Here in California there are many providers of this type of flight services between rural GA airports and the urban center airports of the greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Areas. In the last few years there have been a number of new entrants to this market such a Surf Air, Blade, and FLOAT that provide subscription air taxi service between established cities, this is an early rendition of TaaS. By 2023 there will be a new participant to these air charter services known as UBER ELEVATE that will begin on demand air taxi services with a variant of the Joby S4 eVTOL aircraft in the Los Angeles market.
The JOBY S4 eVTOL aircraft is in advanced stages of obtaining its airworthiness certificate with the FAA towards commercial operations by 2023. The September 28th issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology’s front cover photo of the S4 in hover flight above the rolling hills of their California test center, was followed up with a 6 page article, detailing the progress of this new type of aircraft. Given the investor pool behind this eVTOL project, such an article would not be allowed, unless there was a high level of certainty towards the pending commercial flight operations in the near term future. Keep in mind that earlier in 2020, Jody had secured over $720 million in investor funding to bring this airframe to market use. That magnitude of capital investment is seeking a longterm Return On Investment (ROI). One of Joby’s prime investors was Toyota, and their economy of scale in manufacture of vehicles. This is an indication of thing to come in the next 3-5 years.
Uber Elevate’s prime goal is to develop the information matrix to blend the product of TaaS with the various VTOL aircraft service providers and individual customer transportation needs for operational urban air taxi services. In the last 3-4 years there have been significant progress in the discussions between the innovators of these new aircraft and the aeronautical regulators of both the FAA and EASA (European Aeronautical Safety Administration). The discussions have covered manufacturing of the various VTOL and fixed wing aircraft, with both conventional power sources, but also Electrically powered aircraft, and a few Hydrogen fuel cell systems too. Pilot training and operations of these new craft, with a laser focus of safety have progressed well. There is also mature discussions of how these VTOL aircraft will ingrate into the National Air Space (NAS) as these aerial taxi services begin passenger operations in the markets of Dallas TX, Los Angeles CA and Melbourne Australia by 2023.
Here in California there will be use from these VTOL aircraft, and fixed wing air taxi services in our smaller GA airports. Airports within a 100 mile radius of SFO & LAX will see the first impacts within the next 2-5 years with increased aircraft operations, and an associated increase of ground service needs.