The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Advanced Air Mobility Evangelists Get Reality Check at Revolution.Aero Conference

Revolution may have been in the air in October 2018 when a cabal of disruptors armed with plans for distributed electric propulsion and automated flight controls first gathered in San Francisco to plot how to turn the aviation world upside down. Almost five years and a global pandemic later, the Revolution.Aero event convened in Dublin last week, with the upstarts beginning to sound more like their boring legacy aviation industry parents, tempering bold promises that eVTOL aircraft would fill urban skies by 2024 with a more cautious and patient approach.

Perhaps humbled by regulatory complexities and a tightening of the investment pipeline, more and more players seem now to be targeting the end of this decade for their inventive technology and business models to gain momentum. That said, many of the highest-profile eVTOL pioneers, such as Archer, Joby, Lilium, and Volocopter, are still assuring financial backers that 2025 will be the year revenues start to flow when their vehicles enter service.

On the first morning of the second Revolution.Aero event of 2023, seasoned industry consultant Darrell Swanson laid the sector’s cards on the table when he delivered a sober assessment of what is at stake. “We still have a long way to go,” he told the conference. “There’s a lot to do to get the type certification [for the new aircraft] and then we risk falling into a negative feedback loop if we can’t get production scaled up for [competitive] pricing and service delivery.”

Advanced Air Mobility Prospects Point to the East

The answer, said Swanson, whose EA Maven consultancy is preparing studies on paths to commercialization in markets including the UK, is to diversify business models into regional air services. He urged a largely Western audience to look east to markets like India, which is poised to overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

“We think regional air mobility will be huge in countries like India,” he said. After years of inertia in modernizing the country’s air transport industry, there is now hope that the government in Delhi views electric and hybrid-electric aircraft as tools that will unlock new air routes for millions of its citizens in underserved communities across the vast nation.

Duncan Walker, founder and CEO of infrastructure developer and drone operator Skyports, also suggested the industry turn its attention eastward. When pressed on where the first eVTOL air services will be launched, he named Dubai, Singapore, and either Japan or Korea as likely early hotspots, with Florida being his sole western hemisphere pick.

From Beta Technologies, which is developing the Alia 250 eVTOL model and an eCTOL version, chief revenue officer Patrick Buckles echoed the conference theme of realism. “We’re asking a lot of our customers, regulators, and stakeholders, so we’re trying to be as transparent as we can,” he reflected. “This is not going to be about a single manufacturer winning the whole market, and it will take many of us to lift the water level [for the new advanced air mobility sector].”

AIN senior editor Charles Alcock moderated a session at Revolution.Aero
AIN Media Group senior editor Charles Alcock (left) moderating a session at the Revolution.Aero conference in Dublin. (Image: Revolution.Aero)

One company playing a longer game is Odys Aviation, which is working on a nine-passenger hybrid-electric eVTOL aircraft that it aims to get into commercial service by 2028. The unnamed model will have a potential range of up to around 1,000 miles and cruise at speeds of 345 mph and up to 30,000 feet. Company co-founder and CEO James Dorris indicated, however, that its most likely operating profile in Part 135 operations will be between 100 and 500 miles, with all-electric flights of close to 200 miles considered feasible for the blown-wing design.

“We looked at a full-electric aircraft and, in terms of direct operating costs, it's about nine or 10 cents per mile versus around 12 to 15 cents with hybrid-electric [propulsion],” he told the conference. “If you map all the operating costs, as we’ve done with some small and major regional carriers, we get to numbers as low as 40 to 75 cents, so the difference between [electric and hybrid-electric] is very small, but you get to deliver on mission sets that are more meaningful for passengers.”

California-based Odys has flown a subscale technology demonstrator and aims to start flight testing a full-scale prototype in 2025. “The ramp-up will come after 2028, so it may well be into 2030 or 2032 before [regional air mobility] is really up and running,” Dorris commented. He claimed that the aircraft will deliver a 92 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared with current narrowbody airline services on routes such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

Pipistrel, which is part of Textron’s eAviation division, is exploring technology avenues for transforming regional air transportation, some as part of European Union-funded research and development in pursuit of carbon reduction objectives. “Aircraft operators in this amazingly large secondary market will have to embrace the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and this means we have to look at a portfolio of vehicles, some of which will be VTOL and some CTOL [conventional takeoff and landing],” said Tine Tomažič, the company’s director of engineering and programs. “We’re looking at options such as thermal hybrids and hydrogen, and also at platforms with more than 19 passengers.”        

Reality Check from Leasing Groups

Also at Revolution.Aero in Dublin were leading leasing groups Avolon, Falko, LCI, and Lobo Leasing, which have all made provisional order commitments for electric aircraft. Their representatives expressed confidence in the demand for the new technology while acknowledging that their arrival on the market will require a different approach from lessors.

LCI’s chief executive, Jaspal Jandu, echoed calls for the new vehicles to be made available on terms that are closer to equipment finance leases than traditional aircraft leases, with concepts such as power-by-the-electron for key components such as batteries. Marc Tembleque Vilata, head of Avolon’s new eAvolon electric aviation unit, said that batteries should be treated as current aircraft engines are in terms of how they hold value. It is in close contact with Vertical Aerospace, with which it holds commitments for the four-passenger VX4 eVTOL model, about exactly how batteries will be replaced in service.

Honeywell Aerospace connectivity sales manager Chris Bigwood suggested that eVTOL batteries might have a useful life of one or two years. “We don’t know yet—we’re still evaluating the data,” he acknowledged.

The $64,000 question—or, allowing for inflation, the $64 million question—at Revolution.Aero was how long the commercial life of eVTOL vehicles will be and how their values can be accurately assessed. The consensus among the four leasing company leaders on the stage was that there is not much certainty on either point.

“We need to be very careful because we could kill the leasing market if we don’t know what the values really are,” cautioned James Greenstreet, executive vice president of Falko. As a former executive with British Aerospace, he bears the scar tissue from when the UK manufacturer took a severe financial hit from trying to directly offer leases for its 146 family of regional airliners. He declined to speculate on what commercial life electric aircraft might have but did caution that they might prove harder to move around the world between lessees than existing equipment.

“Vehicles don’t exist yet in enough numbers, and so we are only guesstimating [on values],” Jandu said. “Much of it comes down to how much of the system is based on the batteries and how you could separate these [in terms of asset values], but whatever the economic life is you could factor this into the lease and it is more a question for appraisers. What we’re trying to get across to manufacturers is that these need to be liquid assets and that there shouldn’t be too many variants of each type.”

At Lobo Leasing, Gustavo Semeraro, senior vice president for global business development, took a different view and said that his company is pressing manufacturers to introduce upgrade features to the new aircraft. He estimated that eVTOLs might be expected to have a commercial life of 15 years.

Putting yet more worry into the mix, the leasing experts said that insurance, for which premiums are rising across the aviation sector, could prove challenging for the new wave of operators. For instance, Jandu rhetorically questioned how third-party liability might be assessed for flights over wealthy urban areas such as Manhattan, where there may well be more attorneys per square foot than in any other major conurbation. Greenstreet suggested that a solution might be found by the industry through some kind of mutual approach to insurance.

The Path to Advanced Air Mobility Sobriety Begins in Dublin

At LCI, Jandu’s team sees eVTOL applications such as cargo and logistics as being where eVTOL vehicles will first prove their worth. Balkiz Sarihan, CEO and head of urban air mobility at Airbus, echoed that sentiment when repeatedly pressed by Revolution.Aero’s main moderator, Alasdair Whyte, as to why the European aerospace group appears to be opting out of the gold rush to launch passenger-carrying air taxi services with its CityAirbus NextGen fixed-wing, lift-and-cruise design.

“Air taxi on demand is a sexy investment pitch but we’re looking at feeder markets and where eVTOLs can be complementary to what’s there now and fill gaps,” she stated. “We’re not going to be part of the consumer model. We’re not going to build infrastructure. “But we’re going to work with partners to shape the value chain.”

Sarihan told her audience not to expect to see Airbus chasing letters of intent as validation of early demand. Making it clear that the company views the back end of this decade as the earliest the new sector will gain meaningful momentum, she said that her team is more focused on how best to apply cutting-edge Airbus technology, such as batteries from its satellites, and on “choosing to work with people who have the same long-term vision.”

As if none of these contributions were enough to serve up sobriety to a high-spirited audience trying to resist the siren call of Dublin’s world-renowned pubs, Andy Blundell, managing director of the aviation and marine finance division at Close Brothers private bank, discouraged fundraisers from knocking on his door. “While we recognize that the market is moving and we need to be ready, we're not lending to advanced air mobility companies yet because they are not generating revenues and we need to be able to get money back from our loans,” he commented.

Michael Halaby, managing director and head of aviation advisory with MUFG Bank, echoed Blundell's words. “There’s no upside for us," he concluded. "At best we just get our money back with interest. We need more traceability."