On The Radar
Advanced air mobility (AAM) has the potential to revolutionize how people get around, with eVTOL air taxis promising to fly passengers over traffic jams in urban settings and other next-generation aircraft enabling regional flights in areas that are underserved by aviation today. With new electric, hydrogen-powered, and hybrid-electric propulsion systems, AAM aircraft can drastically reduce the environmental impact of aviation while simultaneously reducing operating costs, making flights more affordable. Better yet, AAM can also cut travel times for urban and regional trips by more than half.
While the value propositions for AAM may be clear, the industry's success will ultimately hinge on people’s willingness to choose these new transportation modes over existing ground-based options, like cars, buses, and trains. To make AAM more appealing, operators must ensure a seamless and hassle-free end-to-end customer experience, according to the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. In a new blog post, McKinsey analysts spell out all the ways in which the customer experience could “make or break” the AAM industry.
As an example, McKinsey’s blog considers a hypothetical trip in Germany between Munich and Stuttgart. The 230-kilometer (143-mile) journey takes about 120 minutes or more by car, depending on traffic conditions. Meanwhile, a flight between the cities takes only about 45 minutes. However, flying rather than driving on this trip might not actually save much time, as passengers still need ground transportation to and from each airport. Before departure, also, they must check in and go through a security checkpoint, and upon arrival, they may need to wait 15 minutes to retrieve their luggage. In the end, the trip involving a 45-minute flight could actually take closer to two hours.
“By the time you add all that together, you’re like, 'You know what? I might as well drive because that sounds complicated,'” Robin Riedel, co-lead for the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility, told reporters during a briefing at the company’s San Francisco headquarters on Friday. “The point here is we can't just copy what traditional aviation has done. We actually have to do a step change there and create a customer experience that looks completely different.”
Ground transportation, albeit subject to unexpected traffic jams and more time-consuming overall, could still be the preferred travel mode for urban and regional passengers because it comes with fewer “hassle factors” than air transportation, the McKinsey report suggests. Because AAM flights are mostly expected to follow a set schedule rather than operate on demand, travelers will have more flexibility when traveling by car than they would booking a flight. Driving a car also simplifies trip planning, according to the report. Air travel introduces more complexity by requiring multiple changes in modes of transportation, such as taking a car to and from the airport or vertiport. These “hassle factors,” combined with the lower cost of ground transportation, could dissuade travelers from choosing to fly rather than drive.
Five tips for AAM operators
For the AAM industry to succeed, the McKinsey report finds, flight operators and other relevant industry players will need to address five aspects of the customer experience. First, travelers need to be provided with plenty of information to help them make informed trip decisions. “Operators will need to develop experiences that dramatically reduce uncertainty and over-communicate details about each step in the journey,” the report states. “For example, they could provide customers with an end-to-end view of the time savings for their trip, factoring in both the flight and ground transport, to help them decide which mode of transportation is best.”
The second point on McKinsey’s list is that operators should carefully consider the trade-offs between demand aggregation and costs. Historically, airline operators have limited the number of flights and airports served in order to make fewer flights with larger aircraft, thereby reducing overall operating costs and ticket prices. But AAM operators will need to re-evaluate these trade-offs, according to McKinsey.
“On short distances, operators must offer enough flights throughout the day that customers do not feel constrained by schedules and opt for ground substitutes instead—and that holds true even if this strategy creates the need for smaller aircraft at higher cost,” the report states. “Similarly, operators must carefully think about the number of airports and vertiports from which they will offer service, given the need to minimize the first and last mile of the trip.” While serving fewer locations might help to aggregate demand and lower costs, it could also reduce the overall demand for flights by increasing the time passengers might need to spend getting to and from the airports or vertiports.
The third thing McKinsey suggests AAM operators need to do is to help passengers manage the transitions between multiple modes of transportation. For example, forcing passengers to wait on rideshare vehicles to arrive for 10 minutes for the first and last legs of their journey could significantly reduce their time savings and may tip the scales in favor of driving rather than flying, according to McKinsey.
“Operators can optimize both travel time and convenience by being thoughtful about transitions to new transport modes and considering who ‘owns’ the customer journey at each stage,” the report states. “Some operators may explore integrating data on flight status into rideshare or map apps to create a seamless end-to-end journey. If they can guarantee the availability of a rideshare vehicle, for example, travelers will not have to build a time buffer into their trips to ensure that they reach their destination in time.”
The fourth item on McKinsey’s list pertains to how passengers might spend their time on an aircraft. While passengers will likely find time savings to be an important factor in their decision to fly rather than drive, exactly how they will spend their time in transit could be equally or even more important. For example, some customers may choose the mode of transportation that poses the fewest disruptions so they can work or take calls while in transit. By offering amenities such as in-flight internet connectivity and tray tables for laptops, service providers may entice more passengers to fly on their aircraft. “Operators could build trust and brand loyalty by proactively communicating the status of these services pre-flight and giving customers the chance to choose alternative transportation if they are unexpectedly not available,” the report states.
The final suggestion from McKinsey’s report is that the AAM industry should find ways to reinvent the airport experience to be more convenient and help customers save time. In most major airports today, wait times at security checkpoints are typically around 10 to 20 minutes. At the busiest airports, wait times often exceed 23 minutes on average. “Airports and vertiports could reimagine this experience as a simple walk-through process leveraging advanced, automated scanners and risk-assessment tools,” the McKinsey report states. “AAM operators could also partner with airports and vertiports on new mobile solutions, allowing customers to order food, beverages, and other items on the way to the airport or vertiport. They would then have those items available for pickup at the gate prior to boarding.”
While these five factors could help to ensure the best customer experience with AAM, McKinsey notes that operators of AAM services and airports/vertiports should also consider the specific needs of different types of customers. For example, business travelers on longer regional flights might want more “premium, white-glove service,” while travelers on shorter commutes, such as urban air taxi rides, may prefer to save time by having minimal interactions with operators, the report states.
With several AAM and UAM companies preparing to enter service in the next few years, flight operators, infrastructure players, and other industry partners need to begin carefully considering these aspects of the customer experience soon to help ensure a smooth launch of services and continued demand. “They need to examine customer experience and reduce the hassles of flying, or else the market may not emerge and reach its full potential,” the McKinsey report states. “Operators that are successful in these efforts may become early leaders and win repeat business as AAM gains traction.”