On The Radar
Major airport infrastructure projects can take anywhere from five to 20 years, with the associated capital investment periods generally running over five years. Given that no major airport in the world currently appears to have an active plan to add vertiports for eVTOL aircraft, this begs the question as to how the companies promising commercial flights from 2025 propose to access these vital gateways.
This is the conundrum being addressed by major civil engineering groups like WSP that are seeking to prepare airports to play their part in the highly anticipated if overhyped advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. The U.S. company’s senior aviation planner and technical principal, Gaël Le Bris, is helping Philadelphia International Airport to include provisions for vertiports in its new master plan.
Under commissions from the U.S. Transportation Research Board, WSP has developed planning documents for vertiports as part of the effort to find a place at airports for new electric aircraft. A pair of reports prepared under the board’s Airport Cooperative Research Program provide useful planning tools for airports seeking a piece of the action, namely Preparing Your Airport for Electric Aircraft and Hydrogen Technology and Urban Air Mobility: An Airport Perspective.
For eVTOL operators looking to provide gridlock-busting connections between cities with airports—such as that proposed by Archer and United Airlines—Le Bris told FutureFlight that these will likely have to start with landside vertiports to avoid burdensome plans for screening passengers and their baggage for the short air taxi flight. “This is why it is so important for AAM to be part of airport master plans because then at least the plans won’t hinder [the inclusion of eVTOL aircraft],” he said. “We need to get airports to talk about all aspects of electrification.”
A lot of attention has been given to anticipated early-adopter cities for eVTOL services, including Los Angeles and Miami. However, among WSP clients now planning for electric aircraft are states such as Colorado, Washington, and Utah, where the company has produced plans for an AAM transit corridor for the Department of Transportation.
WSP is also helping other urban facilities to be ready for the new models, such as the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. In addition, the company sees potential for the new mode of air transportation to have a transformative impact on states such as Hawaii, where access to aircraft can, in some instances, be life-saving because it can result in patients getting to hospitals more quickly.
“No one today has a simple answer on the business model for AAM, and it likely won’t be one single model,” Le Bris told FutureFlight. “We also see a case for eSTOL aircraft and some states like North Carolina want to be at the forefront of regional air mobility.”
In WSP’s view, whether what’s coming is categorized as advanced, urban, or regional air mobility, the common thread is its ability to improve so-called mobility deserts. In some cases, only relatively modest ground infrastructure will be required and services could get underway first with existing helicopters.
While preparations for the engineering challenges associated with ground infrastructure are vital, Le Bris maintained that it is no less important to convince the man and woman in the street why they should embrace the new mode of transportation. “There is a need to shift from the concept of social acceptance to social desirability,” said Le Bris. “In terms of changing public policy, the enemy is not mobility, it’s climate change, and if we can deliver true zero-carbon aviation we can win that flight, but we also need to look at the bigger picture in terms of benefits to society.”