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Air Taxis Are Coming, We Need to Know More
Joby Aviation announced last week that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved flight testing of its electric air taxi, bringing the manufacturer one step closer to achieving approval for commercial operations in the aircraft.
Joby is the second manufacturer to receive approval for flight testing of such an aircraft, as Archer Aviation received the necessary certification in 2021. Though the testing and certification dates for aircraft such as these are being pushed back continually, it is they very well might become an integral part of the aviation industry, at least in the United States, by the end of the decade.
The certification process for new aircraft is notoriously slow, as has been proven by the Boeing 777X, which is still undergoing its final tests years after deliveries were set to start. Even after certification ends, it often takes a while before completely new aircraft are mainstream in the aviation industry. Often, operators take years to assess whether a particular type is safe and reliable enough to invest tens or hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars on orders.
These electric air taxis, also called eVTOL aircraft due to their ability to takeoff and land vertically like helicopters, may prove different. Joby and Archer both have big plans for their aircraft right out of the gate.
eVTOL Past and Future
Joby has a goal of becoming the “Uber of the Skies” by shuttling passengers conveniently and cheaply from place to place, and it has a $131 million contract with the United States Air Force to produce the aircraft. Archer has a multi-million dollar contract with United Airlines, which is planning to fly passengers from its O’Hare International Airport hub to downtown Chicago in the next couple of years.
These big contracts are massive votes of confidence in these yet-unproven aircraft manufacturers. Commercial helicopter flights are not a novelty. Propped up for years by government subsidies, the industry thrived for years in large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Even after a deadly crash and loss of subsidies killed the commercial helicopter market decades ago, a niche market still exists flying passengers into and out of airports in New York City.
More Questions Must Be Answered
In terms of civilian applications, these electric air taxis seem like they’ll start in this same role. United, as mentioned, plans to fly their Archer eVTOL aircraft between O’Hare and the Chicago Vertiport in the Loop, Chicago’s central business district.
One of the biggest looming questions is how these eVTOL air taxis will fit into the already-massive operation at O’Hare, which is the largest airport in the world by aircraft movements. The airport is already struggling to keep up with the current traffic flow it IS facing, as it’s in the middle of a decades-long, multi-billion-dollar upgrade that has already seen it completely redesign its runway layout and will bring the addition of multiple new satellite terminals, with options for more, to maximize capacity for the number of planes that can come in at one time.
United will need to find a way to fit their eVTOLs into this stream of traffic. The company no doubt wants these air taxis to appeal to passengers looking for a quick way to access business in Chicago quickly and easily, so it won’t want to have passengers sitting idly by waiting for a quiet period before flying into the city.
Considering that O’Hare’s passenger terminals are located in the middle of northerly and southerly airfield complexes with steady streams of aircraft coming in and out, getting passengers to one side of the airport to take board air taxis will be a logistical challenge; but so will finding out the ideal flow to fit the air taxis into the preexisting traffic flow.
As with any change of this magnitude, finding an ideal solution is going to take a lot of time and resources that only a company as large as United can comfortably invest. The airline still has a year or more to find a solution, which will no doubt require intricate planning and highly-skilled pilots, air traffic controllers, and other crewmembers to keep moving safely.
An equal challenge is how Joby will make itself into an “Uber of the Skies.” Such a service will likely be prominent first in cities, which are already congested and noisy. Putting aside the issue of fitting these air taxis into busy airspaces handling approaches and departures at major airports, air taxis will likely face significant backlash from citizens who do not want one more piece of transportation clouding the skies and increasing noise pollution. This will be of special concern among businesses and hospitals, who will likely object to having the increased noise interrupting critical meetings, procedures, and other operations.
If the service becomes popular, maintaining proper aircraft separation from each other and the buildings they’ll be flying around may also prove an issue. The FAA will need to enhance radar capabilities to maintain better separation from obstacles, not to mention add instrument approach procedures in the middle of crowded downtown areas, if these air taxis want any chance of operating on days that are not perfectly VFR. There is also the question of how and whether obstacle clearance requirements will change to even allow flight in downtown areas in the first place.
Potential Risk Mitigations
Perhaps Joby and Archer will be able to respond to these challenges. If these risks can not be mitigated, though, United and other operators will have additional work to do: planning contingencies if these air taxis can not get passengers to or from the airport on time in bad weather, congested airspace, or crowded city centers. Still, as with both helicopters and airplanes, there will likely be many uses for these eVTOL aircraft that will help their manufacturers succeed.
“This will transform the way we move around on a daily basis,” said Joby Founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt. “We will be able to free ourselves from the constraints of driving in automobiles and we’ll be able to fly to more and more destinations over time. When you can get to your destination five times faster and see the beautiful world from the air, it’s not only more efficient but it’s a spectacular way to travel.”
“[The air taxis are] for a very small subset of the population, [they’re] not going to change my life in any way,” Wendy Root Askew, the Monterey County Supervisor, told Lookout Sant Cruz. Monterey County, California encompasses Joby’s testing facility.
“But if you listen to what they’re really saying, they’re saying we’re here to design, we’re here to innovate. The applications they have, the technology they’re building out, is relevant across a thousand different industries and a thousand different purposes. So, we’re really at the center of innovation,” said Root Askew.
It seems for now that eVTOL aircraft will be in the future of commercial aviation. However, there is a lot of work to be done to figure out just how they’ll fit into not only the aviation industry but into broader society. This isn’t to say that work can’t be done, but, as with everything in aviation, it is bound to be a long process with hiccups, do-overs, and plenty of lessons to be learned.
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