John Grant, chief data officer at OAG, outlines what the arrival of eVTOLS and vertiports will mean for airports and the wider aviation sector

The aviation industry is about to enter one of the most exciting periods of technological change, as it grapples with meeting its net zero targets and delivering on its sustainability commitments within the next 20 years.

There is no silver bullet solution, but more likely a series of small steps that will result in marginal advances until we eventually reach our destination.

Much of the media attention has been around biofuels and alternate sources of fuels such as hydrogen and batteries, although the case for battery aircraft appears to be diminishing, at least for now.

John Grant, OAG

John Grant is chief data officer at OAG, a global travel data provider

An evolving sector

The use of single-aisle A320XLR type aircraft for what were once considered long-haul sectors is a relatively new development and one that has allowed secondary markets to be connected on a point-to-point basis rather than having to connect via a hub airport.

Next year, Qantas hopes to launch its flagship non-stop services from Sydney to London and New York on the back of advanced aircraft technology. And then, of course, there is the opportunity for electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which is just beginning to be realised and has spawned a whole industry and discussion around advanced air mobility (AAM). So were the Jetson family of cartoon fame actually ahead of the game? Maybe so …

Recent indications from the United States suggest that initial commercial eVTOL services could be operational by 2025. But before that first service there is a whole list of issues to be addressed and from a planning perspective several operational challenges to be overcome. How could this all play out?

Lilium trials in Spain

Lilium tests its fifth-generation technology demonstrator, Phoenix 2

From concept to reality

The initial concept of eVTOLs hasn’t really changed in the last decade. It involves the creation of an aircraft capable of flying relatively short distances that could either connect a network of satellite locations around a major city with direct and speedy access to that city’s hub or perhaps to a central location in the city, such as Piccadilly Circus in Central London.

In essence there appear to be two immediate use cases for eVTOLs. The first involves connecting small communities to major airport networks and the second around replacing existing air services with a more environmentally friendly option. But first we need to understand where the development of eVTOLs is and what the prime use cases are.

Importantly, no eVTOL has yet been certified for commercial passenger use, but there are several manufacturers, predominantly based in North America, that are well advanced in their certification processes. Initial thinking is that eVTOL will be used in search and rescue, disaster relief and the rapid distribution of emergency supplies. But once the concept has been proven, there is potentially no limit to the opportunities and potential impact of eVTOLs in commercial aviation.

In Dubai, progress is being made on the development of an eVTOL taxi launch by 2027 and similar developments are under way in and around the West Coast of the US through an agreement between Uber and Joby Aviation. These plans are initially based around the creation of vertiports and will obviously cater for wealthy travellers needing to get quickly around without relying on heavily congested road systems.

It’s inevitable that some of those vertiports are going to be at or very close to airports. Indeed, the question is will they be airside or landside, and if landside will they be located close to the main passenger terminals or – more likely – the general aviation facilities? However, eVTOL taxis or charter services will only serve a very small percentage of those passengers arriving at airports and are not going to help when airports are reviewing their surface access strategies. But for airlines, that small percentage of passengers can be very lucrative.

eVTOLs could provide a release of future airport capacity by using their vertical take-off capability 

Eve Air Mobility plant in Taubaté

Eve Air Mobility's first eVTOL production facility, in Taubaté, São Paulo 

Airline investment

United Airlines – or more accurately UA Ventures – has invested US$15m in an order from Embraer subsidiary Eve Air Mobility for up to 200 air taxis capable of carrying four passengers within a range of 60 miles. Eve has also received letters of intent from markets such as Kenya and Singapore where linkages to the national airlines can be traced.

For United, the commercial attraction of being able to offer high-value corporate accounts access to an office-to-seat product that avoids downtime in traffic is a high value add to any sales pitch. With several major hub bases across the US, 200 taxis may not be enough once the concept has been proven and demand builds. The potential return relative to the investment and the advanced sustainability credentials that can be generated have all been considered by United and clearly make sense, but it remains a niche product.

But is that the real future of eVTOLs or is there more?

Vertical Aerospace emergency service eVTOL

The rapid distribution of emergency supplies will be one of the first use cases for eVTOLs, says John Grant

Despite the progress made to date there is little sign of a genuine eVTOL aircraft that could offer both a 50-seat capacity and operate a range of up to 100 miles and therefore perhaps encourage a migration away from more conventional aircraft operations. In the US alone there are more than 350 airport pairs currently operated that are under 100 miles, some of which are even operated by B737 aircraft such as Madison to Chicago O’Hare, which is served by both American and United Airlines.

Should such an eVTOL aircraft be developed, then not only in the US but in locations such as the Caribbean, Greek Islands, Scandinavia and even the United Kingdom, there are numerous opportunities for future operation. One of the main features of eVTOLs is their vertical take-off ability, something that could make a big difference to future airport capacity requirements.

We’re not expecting to see a dramatic increase in the number of locations seeking an airport code because of eVTOL developments

Freeing up capacity

While much of our airport planning has featured on future capacity, particularly runway availability, eVTOLs could provide a release of future airport capacity by using their vertical take-off capability from a remote location at airfields. Operationally, such developments need to be carefully considered. While eVTOLs will not in themselves eradicate the need for more new runaway capacity in some locations, it would be an effective resource reallocation if a few peak hour slots that were used for sub-100-mile services could be released by eVTOL operations.

Quite how much thinking is taking place in this area is unclear, but judging by the number of conferences now scheduled, it’s a big subject area, for conference organisers at least. Personally, I have only seen a few airports seriously evaluating how they weave eVTOLs into their broader business strategies, not just from the perspective of surface transport access but also from serving local and connecting markets for their airline customers.

Joby and Skyports Living Lab

Joby Aviation and Skyports Infrastructure have developed a Living Lab passenger terminal to enable them to test a variety of technologies 

As for the implications for OAG, we’re not expecting to see a dramatic increase in the number of locations seeking an airport code because of eVTOL developments, although we continue to watch that possibility closely. However, we are expecting that in the coming years some enlightened airlines will bring scheduled eVTOL services into their schedules and that we will need to add additional aircraft codes and seating configurations to our databases; we’ve been doing that sort of thing for years so will be ready when the time comes. And, as always in aviation, once you think you’ve worked out the future, something happens that changes all your thinking and planning. That’s what makes this industry fun!

Main image: Lilium