The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On The Radar

How Planepooling Could Drive a Respooling of Regional Air Services

Some would say that all the best ideas get recycled periodically. Ride-sharing, planepooling, empty legs­–call these concepts what you will; in the context of air transportation they all hinge on the proverbial no-brainer notion of maximizing utilization of aircraft and their supporting assets, such as airports.

Brent Skorup and Robert Graboyes, a pair of research fellows at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, take a fresh look at these concepts in their newly published “working paper,” entitled Planepooling and Air Taxis for Post-Covid Aviation, which also channels some of economist E.F. Schumacher’s "small is beautiful" ideas from the 1970s. The libertarian think-tank was founded and is funded by the Koch Family Foundation.

In addition to considering shifts in societal attitudes to transportation prompted by the ongoing global pandemic, the authors consider how significant technological advances—such as electrification, autonomous flight, and digital trip booking platforms—could put more energy behind new approaches. They discuss how new approaches, including those espoused by the advanced air mobility movement, could reinvigorate small-scale air transportation more successfully than the under-delivering very light jet revolution that waned in the early years of this century.

The 43-page study provides a useful recap of the heyday of the first wave of planepooling (1997 to 2004) and considers how a new wave could be kickstarted in the U.S., initially using almost 7,000 light aircraft with around seven passenger seats. The challenge seems to hinge on how a mass market can be forged from a “private commuter” and “private on-demand” sector of air transportation that is currently fragmented and served by multiple small operators.

“We suspect social and technological changes in the next two decades could make private regional aviation attractive and affordable for business travelers and the middle class, much as deregulation and social trends opened airlines to the middle class in the 1980s and 1990s,” the Mercatus Center authors argue. “Making planepooling convenient and cost-effective will require some technological advances and some changes in public policy.”

The study calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation to prioritize the development of regional aviation. It maintains that federal subsidies for smaller airports would provide a significant boost by stimulating a market for connections to communities grossly neglected by the airlines’ dominant hub-and-spoke business model.

To illustrate their main points, the authors take a fresh look at the classic “Nashville to Asheville” conundrum, examining how travelers might enjoy better alternatives for that 300-mile Tennessee to North Carolina journey than an onerous road trip and the dreaded airline connection via Purgatory (trading under the name Atlanta International Airport). They look at how costs could be contained with, for example, a service in which a small aircraft might make one or more quick landings to pick up other passengers en route at quiet airports.

The paper also examines possible new contenders for its planepooling business model. These include MagniX’s electrified versions of the Cessna Grand Caravan workhorse, Otto Aviation’s Celera 500 diesel-powered business aircraft, and several of the eVTOL aircraft frontrunners.