Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill is credited with promulgating the maxim, “All politics is local.” This is certainly the case when it comes to advanced air mobility (AAM).
For while the technology continues to advance—with more than half a dozen eVTOL vehicle designs now flying and some 400 in the aggregate under development—the gauntlet of byzantine national, state, and local regulations and zoning approvals could stifle AAM’s growth.
The industry is working diligently to develop guidelines and standards for policymakers at all levels of government, but it seems uncertain whether these issues will be sufficiently resolved in time for a planned start of commercial operations around 2023. “From a policy side we’re probably three years behind,” said Rex Alexander, president of the Five-Alpha consulting firm, which advises stakeholders on heliport and vertiport development.
While industry groups such as ASTM and its F38.02 subcommittee are developing vertiport standards, the FAA is still years away from developing an advisory circular similar to what it did for heliports in 2012. Alexander cites just a handful of U.S. states and localities that are even looking at the issue at present. These include Ohio, North Carolina, Utah, Dallas, and Los Angeles. “Beyond that, it is pretty rare that you are finding someone paying attention,” he told FutureFlight.
Public education will need to drive AAM policy development, according to Yolanka Wulff, co-executive director of the Community Air Mobility Initiative (CAMI). “The industry is making great progress in the technology implementation of these aircraft, and we hear time and again that the biggest challenge to implementation is public acceptance,” she said, citing four factors to gaining that acceptance: trust, public benefit, limited adverse impacts, and integration. “Safety is non-negotiable. It isn’t easy to determine what is safe enough. It is primarily up to regulators like the FAA to answer that question. We also have to consider the public perception of safety, which comes from trust. Earning that trust is key to public acceptance.”
Public benefit is also a big part of the overall equation to laying the successful groundwork for local approvals. “One of the questions we got early on was whether urban air vehicles were just limousines for the very rich," Wulff said. "The answer has to be no. AAM uses the third dimension to provide commercial, economically viable transportation for the public. Benefits include workforce and socioeconomic development and emergency services. AAM has the ability to bring broad availability at a reasonable price to the public and a new mode of travel to metropolitan transportation systems.”
To that end, AAM needs to be sold as an essential cog in the overall transportation system of the community it is intended to serve. “To derive maximum benefit from AAM it needs to be integrated within the existing transportation landscape within a community,” Wulff maintained. Vertiports need to be strategically located within transportation hubs such as light rail stations and airports. AAM has to take accessibility and equity considerations into account. And it needs to integrate in a constructive way with existing transit.”
Successfully selling the benefits of AAM before announcing specific infrastructure plans in a particular location is key, according to Alexander, based on his experience shepherding heliport approvals. “Never let your neighbors find out about your heliport project on the evening news because you too will have a Facebook page dedicated to stopping it,” he said.
“The people who succeed spend the time and the effort to put together a community outreach campaign," Alexander continued. "They go out and educate the community so that there is not a void of information. You’ve got to direct and control that narrative by providing the information used to make that decision from day one. For every day you screw up you are 10 days behind, and some people never catch up.”
Wulff and Alexander agreed that the devil is in the details. Alexander pointed out the scope of delays that could occur in gaining local approval for an eVTOL vertiport, delays that can wildly escalate costs, with planning for just one variable—electric power.
“You need some sort of charging system," he said. "How big will it be and what kind of power is it going to use? You have to look at availability to get power off that local grid and you may have to build a substation to support it. Now, the only thing that has a bigger pushback than heliports in the NIMBy—not-in-my-backyard—world is substations. Nobody wants a substation in their backyard. It costs about $1 million per mile to bring the kind of power in you would need for a vertiport conducting high-tempo commercial operations.”
Alexander advocated beginning the outreach and consultation process in good time. In most of the U.S., it can take two years to get a permit for a new substation, and another two years to get these built, assuming all the required electrical components are available.
Then there’s the challenge of navigating zoning and use approvals for vertiports and associated with that the need for ancillary infrastructure such as electric power. Alexander cautioned that the entire approval process for one site could take as long as a decade.
He cited the example of a hospital rooftop helipad his firm consulted on in Chicago, where the approval process included seven days of public hearings over two years, as the type of timetable that can be required depending on the government involved.
“You can face opposition in the courts and will need to gain approvals from zoning commissions and sometimes entire city councils,” he cautioned, pointing to California as a jurisdiction with demanding requirements for noise and environmental-impact studies.
When it comes specifically to vertiports, Alexander said, U.S. municipalities will naturally look to the FAA for guidance that has yet to materialize, so industry and other organizations must fill the void. “Municipalities need a guide. We don’t want them to make costly decisions they will have to change down the road,” he stated. “The [vertiport] advisory circular the FAA wants to write is going to be based on performance data, and we do not now have a lot of [vehicle] performance data available to write that document,” he said. One thing that Alexander did stress is that eVTOL performance is likely to have higher safety margins than helicopters. “A helicopter has several single points of failure. An eVTOL may have nine motors propelling nine propellers. If one fails and the other eight are completely capable of carrying on, that's redundancy a helicopter might not have.”
For now, industry can help guide states and localities either by applying the soon-to-be-released ASTM vertiport standard or by incorporating heliport guidance from ICAO, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the International Building Code. Alexander pointed out that the NFPA is revising its heliport standards and has set aside placeholders to deal with eVTOL-related items, including electric charging, battery storage, and hydrogen fuel cells.
Alexander also encouraged vertiport developers to have their plans reviewed by the Airports Division of the FAA to ensure their designs at the minimum receive a rating of “no objection” under the Flight Standard Information Management System heliport evaluation to instill project confidence in local officials and reduce liability risks. “Having something in writing ahead of time will save time and money,” Alexander counseled.
This is particularly true of the local fire marshal who often, he claimed, “has the most teeth” when it comes to winning municipal approvals. “You need to know what you are talking about. You need to have a plan in place. You need to work with the right people,” he advised.
Regardless, Alexander cautioned that projects were unlikely to receive blessings in areas that are currently zoned for residential, recreational, or wilderness use.