Proponents of urban air mobility (UAM) define the concept as on-demand commercial air transport, and not the private aviation context within which helicopters fly over
cities today. The question for airlines is whether they
should be interested or concerned.
Airbus and Boeing see more potential in UAM than
simply replacing helicopters with quieter, cleaner,
potentially safer and more publicly acceptable electric
vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles.
They look at megacities around the world wrestling
with how to provide transportation infrastructure
for growing populations and see the potential for
competition with commercial aviation.
Faced with the prospect of investing billions
to build more roads, airports, high-speed railways
or hyperloops, the relatively “infrastructure-light”
promise of short-range air transport may appeal to city
planners. All-electric urban air taxis could rise above
traffc gridlock to connect existing transportation
nodes—airports and bus, metro and train stations—
Air taxis could connect these hubs to business
centers, malls and venues, and, as propulsion
technology improves, they could reach out to the
suburbs to reduce commute times and even further
to nearby cities to provide effcient, frequent
But is the idea feasible?
Skeptics cite challenges
with battery technology,
vehicle noise, airspace
integration and public
acceptance. But for small,
two to four people 30-50
is already adequate. Airbus,
Boeing and others are fying
experimental aircraft, and
Uber plans demonstration
fights over cities in 2020.
Certifcation requirements for eVTOLs are taking
shape in Europe and the US and should be ready to
enable commercial operations to begin by the mid-
2020s. Airspace integration will be an extension
of unmanned traffc management work already
underway to enable routine operation of drones. And
suitable infrastructure already exists in cities in the
form of rooftop helipads and parking decks.
Public acceptance may prove a thornier problem,
although a new study by Airbus fnds one in two
people surveyed in Los Angeles, Mexico City, New
Zealand and Switzerland supported UAM. The main
concerns are safety, noise and equality—with the
potential for air taxis being perceived as a premium
service only for the wealthy, as helicopters are
Proponents maintain eVTOLs will be safer than
helicopters and cars, but the safety levels now
expected from commercial aviation may be hard to
achieve, at least initially. Noise looks more tractable,
as the requirement is to blend into the background
noise in busy cities and not the quiet countryside.
Companies fying eVTOL prototypes claim noise
levels 100 times quieter than helicopters.
UAM is expected to begin as a premium service,
fying routes already served by helicopters, because
initial vehicles will be expensive and limited in
Airlines should not ignore the emergence of urban air mobility.
BY GRAHAM WARWICK