The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Local U.S. Leaders Look to Emerging Technologies for Growth

As the pandemic eases in the U.S., state and local leaders are increasingly looking at emerging technologies such as advanced air mobility and sustainability as a means to return to growth.

Noting the “great hit” that general aviation has taken throughout the Covid-19 pandemic,  Selena Shilad, executive director for the Alliance for Aviation Across America, said, “When we look toward the future, it is not only about recovery but it is also about growth. What many people don’t realize is that general aviation and business aviation are making significant investments in sustainability and emerging technologies. What many also don’t realize is how these investments are going to benefit local communities and how federal investments and local support are so critical at this time.”

Barbara Tolbert, mayor of Arlington in Washington state, who is in the district of U.S. House of Representatives aviation subcommittee chairman Rick Larsen (Democrat-Washington), emphasized the need for supporting these investments in her district.

Calling her local airport, Arlington Municipal, “a key part of the economic engine for the region,” Tolbert noted that it has played a key role not only during the pandemic but also in the aftermath of the 2014 Oso mudslide that devastated part of the region.

Tolbert, who is a pilot, said that after the mudslide, as city officials contemplated how to rebound, they looked to the airport and, in particular, zoning to not only preserve the area but boost the economy. They decided to build an industrial region but “didn’t just want to build your grandfather’s industrial center.”

Rather, they wanted one that attracted “clean-tech” industries. And Tolbert said the city is already seeing the fruits of that effort with Eviation, developer of the nine-seat electric Alice aircraft, moving there as well as the area being in the final running for another company looking to produce a zero-emission electric hydrogen aircraft. “We’re making headway—sooner than I thought [we would] on that front,” she said.

Critical to this is support from federal and state officials, she said. “It’s absolutely, fundamentally important that Congress is behind this,” Tolbert said. “We won’t get there locally.” With the high costs of investment in such technologies, federal investment is critical, she said.

Tolbert also believes it is necessary to get the public on board. “I think with the general public, we will always be in an education mode.” But since these technologies focus on the climate and environment, “it is something everyone understands.”

Kansas Secretary of Transportation Julie Lorenz echoed those sentiments, emphasizing “the importance of partnership at the federal, state, and local level to advance on the technology side and sustainability side.” Each partner plays an integral role, and “we need to have a three-legged stool,” she added.

Moving forward, Lorenz said, “technology is super important and it will help us solve a lot of problems, but it will only help if we adapt and use those technologies.” This will require working through a range of jurisdictional issues to help facilitate that adoption, she added.

At the federal level, such efforts could be boosted through legislation addressing issues around the development and implementation of advanced technologies, particularly on the safety side, said Lorenz.

At the same time, she added, “the federal level has a big role to play in foundational research and development. Those sorts of investments pay dividends that you might not see in two seconds but in 20 and 30 and 50 years both in national defense and in commercial development.”

The technology side will be easier to manage than the adaptive side and will require collaboration throughout the U.S., she said. Airspace doesn’t end at state boundaries, she noted, adding that a connected system will necessitate a “ton of collaboration and cooperation and coordination in putting those collective pieces together. I believe that will be the challenge of the next decade. As we move through a transformational time, all those pieces of the safety aspect are key for our safety. We have to have proving grounds for that technology.”

Within the state, these efforts will require strong partnerships in areas such as workforce development and facilitating initiatives, such as the supersonic corridor that Kansas has established in concert with the FAA. Meanwhile, local leaders can stress job creation.

“Our state role is to bring the right people to the table to identify with clarity and with safety data what are going to be the requirements to deliver air mobility,” added Bob Brock, aviation director for Kansas.

The Alliance for Aviation Across America, meanwhile, has rolled out a web-based microsite to raise awareness of the importance that these developments play within local communities and the need for collaboration by federal, state, and local leaders to lay the groundwork for these efforts.

The Alliance, which was founded in 2007 to help educate government leaders and the public about the integral role general aviation and airports play in local communities, is hoping the web pages will build on its outreach efforts.

“The general aviation industry has made impressive investments in sustainable fuel and technologies,” the organization stated. “These developments, along with advancements in new and emerging technologies, all represent important areas of growth at a critical time when recovery and mobility remain more important than ever.”

The site provides key figures that can be used to educate decision-makers as the aviation community seeks backing for investments. These figures include the $115 billion in economic output that advanced air mobility is expected to generate by 2035, supporting 280,000 jobs.

Further, the organization points out that the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) market is anticipated to grow from a $66 million business in 2020 to a $15.3 billion one by 2030 and reiterates that general aviation supports $247 billion in economic impact per year and 1.2 million American jobs.

The site leads to other web pages, including one on sustainability that highlights efforts underway and explains concepts such as book-and-claim and carbon offsets. Included is a map pointing to areas where SAF may be available. Another webpage details policy and legislative efforts in the areas of workforce development, sustainability, and advanced air mobility.

Plans call for building out the site further with pages that will detail initiatives within the individual states. The Alliance has already developed a full database and an interactive map that discusses the economic impact of general aviation of aviation within each state.