In recent years, ongoing developments in advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles moved from small-package-delivery, limited-range drones toward larger electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft targeting the intra-urban passenger transit market. As an example, in the heavily traffic congested Los Angeles metro area, a passenger deplaning at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) might soon be able to avoid clogged freeways by boarding an AAM vehicle and arrive at a meeting in Burbank within minutes of departure from LAX—a trip that could take more than an hour by taxi, especially during rush hour.
But making this a reality will be largely dependent on establishing a ground-based, sustainable infrastructure in the form of an electric vertiport network that would provide support for aircraft as well as passenger handling. The concept was put on public display in April of this year when London-based Urban-Air Port Ltd. (UAP) unveiled its new Air-One facility in the UK city of Coventry to demonstrate the practicality of AAM within a city’s commercial core. In this case, the site selected for the demonstration was a parking lot. Designed as a modular structure, construction time for the facility was only 11 weeks.
UAP describes Air-One as the “world’s first eVTOL facility, embodying a fully connected, iconic architecture that is modular, scalable, re-usable and flat-packed; as well as ultra-compact and rapidly deployable to create a multi-functional operations hub for manned and unmanned vehicles.”
Catering to both piloted AAM vehicles and autonomous cargo drones, Air-One is essentially a compact, multi-zoned mini-FBO offering passenger check-in and security screening. As designed, the facility accommodates a passenger lounge; café; space for retail pop-ups, cargo handling, and logistics; hangars for electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft; along with provisions for aircraft command, control, charging, and refueling.
The eVTOL aircraft, which passengers board inside the facility, rests on a lift system that raises it to the roof where the propulsion system is activated for take-off, providing an additional margin of safety. An arriving vehicle lands on the roof, cuts power, and is lowered into the facility for passenger discharge.
According to UAP, Air-One can be fully customized to operator requirements and is deployable in both urban and remote locations, as well as on rooftops or on water.
“The compactness is the key. We do more with less in a significantly smaller footprint—up to 60% smaller than traditional aviation heliport design,” said Ricky Sandhu, Founder & Executive Chairman at Urban-Air Port Ltd. “This key driver means we can access high value sites across cities where the demand is.”
In that regard, Sandhu noted that the Air One demonstration is being carried out in an ultra-dense location, adjacent to the main train station in a city center where almost half a million people work and live. “This new, green intermodal infrastructure will remove the largest single constraint to sustainable air mobility, significantly cut congestion and air pollution from passenger and cargo transport, and create a Zero-Emission-Mobility ecosystem,” he pointed out.
Sandhu reported that regulatory authorities throughout the world are working with UAP to realize the benefits of AAM from an infrastructure-to-infrastructure network capability. “We are collaborating closely with the UK CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) for Air One, where we will see, for the first time, a heavy lift drone with a MTOW (Maximum Take Off Weight) in excess of 125kg (275.578 pounds) operating within a significantly built-up area in downtown Coventry,” he said. “Urban-Air Port Air Architecture solutions has purposely designed a matrix of verification and validation programs to ensure future A AM is safe and fit for purpose, guiding and meeting the expectations of aviation and airspace regulators. On the ground we are working with local government bodies on how to safely integrate this new technology across towns and cities in the U.K.”
Assuming the Air-One concept is successful, questions remain as to the extent this model and the AAM eVTOL vehicles it will serve will impact traditional general aviation operations. Is the industry looking at a disruptive technology to which it may need to adapt, or one complementary to what is already in place?
Most likely, airport and FBO operators will see this as an opportunity. “For airports, one of the primary use cases of eAAM vehicles is to provide last-mile transportation services from the airport to the final destination of the passenger,” confirms Joshua Ng, a Director of Alton Aviation Consultancy, a global advisory firm serving the aviation and aerospace industries. “This would largely complement existing modes of ground transportation, because eAAM would be able to expand the airport catchment area due to its superior speed and thus shorter transportation times.”
Ng added that FBOs will find opportunities to serve this new market segment, along with the general aviation market segments they now serve. “FBOs are well-positioned at existing airports given the established infrastructure for such services. Outside the airport environment, there is also potential for FBOs to operate vertiports using the proven FBO operating model that serves the business and general aviation markets well,” he explained.
“The Air-One concept is worth considering as we move into an era of electric VTOL aircraft,” said Donald Howell, President & Chief Financial Officer of Birmingham-based Southern Sky Aviation. The FBO, maintenance, and charter company operates facilities at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM) and Trent Lott International Airport (PQL) in Pascagoula, Mississippi. “With Air-One, you are getting an FBO terminal offering logistics support, battery storage, and added services such as food and beverages—along with the same security screening as an airport.”
Howell visited the Air-One demonstration as part of an NATA delegation. He noted that among Air-One’s advantages are its portability and small footprint.
“At Coventry, it was erected in 11 weeks—compared to an average of 18 months for a brick and mortar FBO—on 11 acres in the city’s business district and a 1.5 minute walk from the train station,” he said. “There is no need for a large landmass, which is a big difference compared to traditional FBOs. That enables you to find a location for an urban, AAM vehicle support facility within a short time.”
Another advantage of the Air-One concept is cost. Howell reported that, according to what he learned at the demonstration, the cost of producing each prefabricated facility will range between $7-10 million, with payback estimated at five years. “Payback for a conventional FBO in the U.S. is about 10-15 years, which is why more FBO operators are trying to lock in long-term leases,” he pointed out.
As for the cost of building a typical FBO, Howell said that it varies based on the location and length of the lease with the specific airport authority. “I have seen it range from $500,000 to $40,000,000,” he said.
There are, of course, many unanswered questions regarding AAM operations, including the supporting infrastructure. For instance, many urban areas have under-utilized airports which, in some cases, could include a role for FBOs in facilitating eVTOL operations.
“With proper planning, it is possible that existing FBOs can accommodate them, although in high traffic areas you may need to separate the traditional FBO from eVTOL aircraft,” said Howell. “This could be due to physical space requirements or an abundance of caution from a safety perspective to avoid adding additional flight activity into an existing space that is already congested.”
Another question raised is, do existing FBOs already have the capability to serve electric as well as conventionally fueled aircraft? According to Howell, right now, many people are not sure what is required to do that.
“A lot of people would probably like to include the Air-One concept as a component of extant facilities. As FBO operators, we need to have better communication from the OEMs regarding the infrastructure required to serve this space,” he stressed. “Once we determine what is needed, then an assessment can be done, on a location by location basis, whether it is possible to serve both liquid fuel and electric aircraft. As an industry, it would be nice for us to provide the education as to the infrastructure needs.”
To illustrate, Howell pointed out that vertiports such as Air-One are likely to support manned passenger aircraft as well as industrial drones, which would hoist cargo containers from a warehouse roof or airport and deliver them to their destination.
“In congested urban areas, this would provide a time savings advantage over local trucking services. But, the implication here is, you may need separate facilities for passenger and cargo operations. In either case, any flight operations from these facilities would have to be done in accordance with a flight plan so the airspace can be adequately managed,” he explained.
At the same time, Howell cautioned that there will be challenges. “With respect to location, the AAM OEMs are focusing on noise reduction, which is one of the things that communities will look at—as well as if the location is conducive to a safe operation.” He also cited technology related issues, since AAMs using a dedicated facility may require different kinds of charging equipment. “Will the charging and battery technologies differ from one OEM to the other?” asked Howell. “Will the charging equipment need to be standardized to serve different electric aircraft?”
In spite of the uncertainties and issues to be addressed, Howell said he has no doubt that eVTOL aircraft are coming on the market. “The question is, will we have the facilities to support these aircraft? The flexibility of the Air-One proposal can help answer that question. It’s an intriguing concept that deserves consideration.”
Brett Fay, Director of General Aviation at Tampa International Airport (TPA) who was among the NATA visitors to Air-One at Coventry, said one of the primary benefits of a system like Air-One is that the facility is agnostic and can support multiple users within a relatively small operational footprint. Since this is a rather new concept, he noted that some issues would have to be addressed prior to installation on or near an airport.
“One of the main concerns for airports will be integrating AAM operations without impacting the utility of the airport,” said Fay. “Site selection for AAM activity will be of critical importance to ensure the location does not conflict with existing flight paths or negatively impact the National Airspace System.”
Asked if the logical site for an airport-based eVTOL terminal would be adjacent to an existing FBO, Fay stressed that it is currently difficult to determine an ideal or typical location on any given airport.
“Each airport environment is unique, and more airports are space constrained and must ensure the highest—and best—use for airport property. There are undoubtedly airports where an off-airport vertiport will be preferable, but I think there is a natural connection to existing airport infrastructure where AAM is not only likely but necessary,” Fay said. “Specifically, airports are looking for additional guidance from the FAA on vertiport design standards as well as how the future increase in air traffic will be managed.”
As with any on-airport business, revenue opportunities related to AAM are likely, but, as Fay pointed out, the business model is going to look much different than one based on fuel sales, which account for a large piece of FBO revenue today. “I think we will likely see a revenue model focused more heavily on user fees as electric aircraft and alternative fuels become more prevalent,” he said.
Fay also predicted that, initially, small package/cargo transport will be the likely mission of AAM, with passenger transport a few years later.
“Most industry experts that I have spoken with seem to agree that the movement of cargo will likely precede passenger transport, and I expect that AAM will play a significant role in the future of package delivery,” he noted. “The use of eVTOL has the potential to increase profitability for parcels being delivered to rural or remote areas by reducing the need for trucks on the road.”
For now, said Fay, the FAA has provided airports with interim guidance on vertiport design standards in the form of an “Engineering Brief” issued in February of this year, with vertiport design standards expected to be finalized in the 2024/2025 timeframe.
“The guidance will be in the form of an Advisory Circular and will play an important role for airports making decisions about the integration of advanced air mobility,” he pointed out. “The FAA guidance is expected to be performance based and will likely address critical issues for airports such as noise, hazardous materials, and safety.”
But Fay also cautioned that while he sees tremendous potential and momentum behind AAM continuing to grow by the day, there is still much to be learned as airport sponsors work to fully understand the many complexities of a still-nascent industry. “It is important, now more than ever, for airports to lean into the conversation and plan for a future that includes Advanced Air Mobility,” he stressed.
Michael Whitaker, Chief Commercial Officer of Supernal, a Washington-headquartered eVTOL vehicle developer, reported that the start-up company is working with UAP to build infrastructure networks, share operational procedures, and design physical prototypes such as the Air-One vertiport rolled out in Coventry. Those networks, in fact, would include large airports, which he called a “significant AAM market” for most business travelers.
“AAM would provide those customers with connectivity from airport to city, avoiding the unpredictable urban traffic,” he said. “At the same time, they are taking cars off the road and not generating CO2 emissions.”
Whitaker added that because AAM aircraft produce very little noise and no emissions, they comply with environmental regulations for airport operations. “They are airport-ready, and there is a desire to make these services available to both commercial air carrier and business aircraft customers, although the majority will be airline passengers,” he remarked.
Asked about the initial markets for AAM, Whitaker cited the existence of different business plans, predicting that both passenger and cargo operations will develop at the same time—with cargo moving more quickly toward autonomous operations.
“In any case these systems will necessitate considerable planning by airports,” he said. “In addition, the Urban-Air-Port concept will require considerable investment and collaboration with state and local authorities. The challenge will be to show them how it will integrate with existing transportation systems—and add value.”
By Paul Seidenman & David Spanovich