A new vertical
for airlines

Major carriers are placing bets on a future where travelers use small, fast, emission-free aircraft to bypass congested roadways on their way to the airport.

Virgin Atlantic imagines a short-haul eVTOL network connecting U.K. cities with airports. (Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic)

Virgin Atlantic imagines a short-haul eVTOL network connecting U.K. cities with airports. (Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic)

Virgin Atlantic imagines a short-haul eVTOL network connecting U.K. cities with airports. (Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic)

On a Thursday in mid-June, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic made similar announcements within minutes of one another: Each had entered into preliminary order agreements for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) from U.K.-based Vertical Aerospace. 

“The goal is to enable sustainable, price-competitive, regional connectivity across the first and last 100 miles of the journey,” Virgin Atlantic explained after it contracted to purchase up to 150 four-seat craft from Vertical. “For example, reducing the 56-mile journey from Cambridge to London Heathrow to just 22 minutes, in comparison to a one-hour, 30-minute drive by road.” 

Around the globe, as many as 100 or more companies are developing eVTOL craft, which promise fast, quiet, zero-emission, short-range transport. Imagine helicopters, but cheaper to operate and without the noise or fuel burn. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Archer Aviation, one of the leading eVTOL startups, estimates that the cost of a trip on its four-passenger Maker aircraft will be $3.30 per seat mile at launch, which is similar to an UberX ride. Translate that into a trip from New York JFK to Manhattan and the price would be just $50 per passenger, Archer says. 

By comparison, Manhattanites can currently purchase a shared helicopter transfer to JFK for $195 from the transport company Blade. 

Economics like that have the potential to open the urban air mobility market to a vast number of people who today wouldn’t consider getting around their home metroplex or commuting to the airport via the sky. According to a June report by investment analysts at Cowen Research, 93% of the world’s top 100 airports are within 20 miles of city centers. Forecasters foresee an enormous global market for eVTOL. A paper published in July in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability noted that estimates for 2035 vary between $74 billion and $641 billion. 

Such huge potential has grabbed the attention of major airlines. Four months before American and Virgin Atlantic announced their tentative orders for up to 250 and 150 Vertical Aerospace craft, respectively, United entered into a conditional deal to purchase up to 200 craft from Archer. And early this month, Brazil’s Azul announced plans to purchase up to 220 eVTOL craft from Germany-based Lilium as well as its intent to develop and launch a co-branded eVTOL network with Lilium in Brazil by 2025.

JetBlue has also gotten into the act. The carrier’s venture capital arm has been an investor in Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Joby Aviation since 2017. Joby’s four-passenger
eVTOL aircraft is regarded by analysts as one of the leaders in the race toward commercial certification. 

Still, analysts are skeptical about whether airlines will truly go forward with their purchase commitments. 

“In most cases, the airlines have made modest investments in the eVTOLs and placed ‘orders’ which entail minimum deposits and are options that can be dropped if things don’t work out,” wrote Cowen analyst Helane Becker.

In addition, experts are doubtful that eVTOL manufacturers and their potential airline partners can meet aggressive service launch timelines set for as soon as 2024.

The leading-edge manufacturers will likely achieve type certification by then, said Eliot Lees, vice president of clean transportation for the consulting firm ICF, referencing the FAA certification that approves an aircraft design. But before operations can begin, aircraft must also receive airworthiness certification. And even after that, operators will need to go through a period of commercial proving out, while also ensuring they have an adequate quantity of aircraft and that the public feels safe and is ready to fly them. 

Lees estimates widespread eVTOL adoption will occur gradually between 2025 and 2035.

One thing that isn’t in doubt, though, is that the technical know-how to jump-start the vertical takeoff and landing industry exists. Notably, in late July, Joby flew a full-size prototype of its battery-powered eVTOL craft more than 150 miles. Though commercial operations will be piloted, Joby’s test flying thus far has been autonomous. The craft has already been awarded U.S. Air Force airworthiness approval for autonomous flying. 

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Archer Aviation has unveiled its Maker eVTOL. United has agreed to purchase up to 200 of the craft. (Courtesy of Archer Aviation)

Archer Aviation has unveiled its Maker eVTOL. United has agreed to purchase up to 200 of the craft. (Courtesy of Archer Aviation)

Archer Aviation has unveiled its Maker eVTOL. United has agreed to purchase up to 200 of the craft. (Courtesy of Archer Aviation)

Archer Aviation has unveiled its Maker eVTOL. United has agreed to purchase up to 200 of the craft. (Courtesy of Archer Aviation)

Another technology leader is Vermont-based Beta Technologies, whose six-seat ALIA eVTOL craft has achieved Air Force airworthiness certification for manned flying. Air Force pilots already have access to fly the craft under the military branch’s operational flight-test program. In May, Beta completed its first interstate flight, going from Plattsburgh, N.Y., to Burlington, Vt.

Beta is gearing the ALIA toward small-delivery cargo flying, as opposed to commercial flying, though Blade has also contracted to purchase 20 of the craft as part of its plan to transition its air taxi operation from helicopters to eVTOL craft.

Logistics, however, are a separate question. Along with the 11-step certification that all new eVTOL entrants will have to go through, Cowen foresees long-term challenges in managing urban airspace once usage becomes dense enough. For example, Sao Paolo, which has the world’s largest helicopter air taxi market with approximately 1,200 daily flights, limits the number of flights over downtown to just six at a time. Effective intracity air traffic controls will need to be established, Cowen said.

Pilot scarcity could also be a problem. Within the U.S., fears are mounting that the pilot shortage that was impacting regional flying prior to the Covid-19 pandemic could soon return, caused this time not only by a large number of upcoming mandatory retirements but also by the early retirement programs that carriers put in place during the crisis year of 2020 in order to stem losses. 

Last year, Boeing estimated a global need through 2039 of 763,000 new pilots for commercial aircraft, business jets and civil helicopter operations alone. That doesn’t include potential eVTOL needs. 

Another logistical challenge will be the availability of takeoff and landing pads, known as vertiports. 

“That has to be built out. Though, depending on who you talk to, the infrastructure needed could be relatively light,” Lees said. 

One advantage is that eVTOL craft will be able to use existing heliports. Six U.S. metropolitan areas already have more than 100 of them, according to Cowen. But they aren’t necessarily evenly spaced. Manhattan, for example, has just three of the New York metro area’s 191 heliports, and none of those are in central Midtown. 

Of course, not all vertiports need to be located on existing heliports, said Craig Jenks, president of the New York-based consultancy Airline/Aircraft Projects, which specializes in airline strategies. Using New York as an example, he said barges in the East or Hudson rivers would do. So would the little-used Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, among other possibilities. 

But even casting logistical challenges aside, Jenks wonders if airlines themselves have figured out how they would incorporate eVTOLs into their networks. 

“I sense that they don’t know,” he said. “They see this thing being developed and potentially being very big, and huge numbers being manufactured. They just want to be in it. There’s so many different uses.”

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Joby Aviation’s four-passenger eVTOL aircraft is regarded by analysts as one of the leaders in the race toward commercial certification. The company has support from JetBlue’s venture capital arm. (Courtesy of Joby Aviation)

Joby Aviation’s four-passenger eVTOL aircraft is regarded by analysts as one of the leaders in the race toward commercial certification. The company has support from JetBlue’s venture capital arm. (Courtesy of Joby Aviation)

Joby Aviation’s four-passenger eVTOL aircraft is regarded by analysts as one of the leaders in the race toward commercial certification. The company has support from JetBlue’s venture capital arm. (Courtesy of Joby Aviation)

Joby Aviation’s four-passenger eVTOL aircraft is regarded by analysts as one of the leaders in the race toward commercial certification. The company has support from JetBlue’s venture capital arm. (Courtesy of Joby Aviation)

That sentiment was at least partially supported in June by United’s chief commercial officer, Andrew Nocella. In addition to the Archer contract, United has recently announced conditional purchase agreements with Boom Supersonic and electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace.

“We really need to help innovation occur,” Nocella said. “Where it all eventually winds up is really the one machination that we shouldn’t try to set very certain boundaries around today, because we just planted the seed about a great future of really efficient, customer-friendly and incredibly green products.”

Still, Nocella did say United would likely use the Archer Maker eVTOL aircraft to get premium customers efficiently to airports. The Maker is slated to fly up to 150 mph with a range of 60 miles. 

Indeed, Jenks said eVTOL air taxis have the potential to boost United’s presence and revenue in the New York market. The carrier’s Newark hub, he said, is often viewed as too far away by flyers based in large swaths of the metroplex, including the wealthiest sections of east Long Island. But if customers could commute via
eVTOL from a conveniently-located vertiport in the Hamptons to Newark, the calculation of traveling out of Newark Liberty Airport compared to JFK would change.  

Still, Jenks said he is skeptical about the commercial viability for airlines of flying customers from city centers to airports. But he said carriers might find a broader market using eVTOLs to transport people from city centers to locations a couple of hours away. For example, from New York to ski areas in the Northeast.

Operations like that are far removed from current airline business models, Jenks said. But he also said that external changes, such as the development of a whole new mode of flight like eVTOL, could force rapid transformation.

He noted how quickly airlines have shifted their network attention during the pandemic to small, leisure destinations, like Key West, Fla., and Bozeman, Mont.

Among the airlines that have lined up eVTOL purchase contracts, Virgin Atlantic has provided the most detail relating to its potential commercial model. In its June announcement, the carrier said it will explore a joint venture with Vertical Aerospace to establish a Virgin Atlantic-branded eVTOL network connecting U.K. cities with airports, starting with London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester. 

There are 37 cities with at least 100,000 people within 100 miles of Heathrow, Virgin noted. Vertical Aerospace expects its four-seat VA-X4 aircraft to fly as fast as 200 mph with a range of more than 100 miles. 

Vertical Aerospace expects its VA-X4 eVTOL aircraft to fly as fast as 200 mph and have a range of more than 100 miles. (Courtesy of American Airlines)

Vertical Aerospace expects its VA-X4 eVTOL aircraft to fly as fast as 200 mph and have a range of more than 100 miles. (Courtesy of American Airlines)

Vertical Aerospace expects its VA-X4 eVTOL aircraft to fly as fast as 200 mph and have a range of more than 100 miles. (Courtesy of American Airlines)

“The VA-X4 offers huge potential to support zero-emissions, short-haul transfers for 7.7 million customers outside of London for flights to and from the U.K.’s main airport hub,” Virgin said. 

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