Some pioneers in the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector almost seem to be taking a Maoist “year zero” approach that consciously dismisses the role of existing forms of private and business aviation as irrelevant distractions that will be swept away by the new wave of eVTOL aircraft and the digital ecosystems that underpin how they are operated.
FutureFlight recently interviewed the founder of one eVTOL aircraft start-up about prospective customers for its five-passenger design. We asked him whether he’d called NetJets. “What’s NetJets?” was the response.
NetJets, offering a broad portfolio of fractional ownership and charter services, is the world’s largest operator of private jets. If you are looking to rapidly expand the customer base for a new type of aircraft intended to revolutionize transportation, some might ask why would you not call NetJets? Or at least, how could you not even be aware of the company’s existence, or pretend not to be?
Lately, at any rate, there have been signs that the AAM crowd may be moving closer to mainstream business aviation. It makes sense for at least a couple of reasons. Firstly because, at least unless or until the planned eVTOL air taxi services scale up to become a genuine mass-market service, it is likely to be high-net-worth business travelers who are the early adopters. And secondly, because business aviation companies have exactly the sort of operational experience that the eVTOL start-ups—which largely have no such experience—may find they will need to turn theory into reality.
A classic case in point was Lilium’s recent appointment of business aircraft operator Luxaviation to provide commercial operations with its seven-seat Lilium Jet eVTOL aircraft in Europe starting in 2024. Under the terms of the contract announced last month, Luxaviation will take responsibility for securing regulatory approvals and managing pilots, who will train following an EASA-approved type rating concept developed by Lilium partner Lufthansa Aviation Training.
The German start-up said that it chose the Luxembourg-based group because of its extensive experience with operating both business jets and helicopters. Luxaviation manages hundreds of aircraft under 10 air operator certificates (AOC) in countries across Europe, giving it a lot of operational flexibility. The company was the first to secure the new EASA AOC approval for a business jet operation, and this is valid across all 27 member states.
Lilium’s move appears to have been an acknowledgment that there is little point in reinventing the wheel when it comes to establishing operations. However, several of the front-running eVTOL aircraft developers still seem intent on retaining full control of the operational phase of their business model, either because they believe only they are capable and/or because they see this as a better revenue path than simply selling aircraft to established operators.
One company that is embracing the existing business aviation market is Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions. The company is a subsidiary of Brazilian business jet and airliner manufacturer Embraer.
At the start of June, Eve announced that business aviation group OneSky Flight had committed to buying up to 200 of its four-passenger eVTOL aircraft starting in 2026. A few days later, Brazilian helicopter operator Helisul Aviation said it will take 50 of the aircraft and partner with Embraer to establish urban air mobility (UAM) services in several undisclosed cities.
OneSky Flight is establishing a UAM division called Halo by combining its existing helicopter subsidiaries Halo Aviation in the UK and Associated Aircraft Group in the U.S. From the provisional order, 100 of the aircraft are to be based in each of these countries.
These companies are part of the Directional Aviation group, which also includes private aircraft fractional ownership provider Flexjet, jet card service Sentient Jet, and on-demand charter operators PrivateFly and FxAir. The group also includes Nextant Aerospace, which specializes in "remanufacturing" existing business jet models with improved propulsion and avionics systems, and training equipment provider Simcom.
In fact, the potential connection between Directional Aviation and Embraer’s plans for the UAM sector runs deeper. In November 2020, Directional Aviation principal Kenn Ricci, along with Steve Rosen who with him is co-CEO of Resilience Capital Partners, founded a special purpose acquisition company called Zanite Acquisition Corp., with the express intent of investing in the UAM sector. Its initial public offering on the Nasdaq market raised around $230 million.
On June 10, Embraer confirmed that Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions is negotiating a possible merger with Zanite. In a statement made in response to a report from Bloomberg, Antonio Carlos Garcia, the Brazilian aerospace group’s executive vice president of finance and investor relations, said that he could not confirm whether or not a definitive agreement will be reached.
What is clear is that Kenn Ricci’s team at OneSky Flight are serious about their plans to be commercial eVTOL aircraft operators through the new Halo venture. He told FutureFlight that the company made a non-refundable six-figure deposit in support of the 200-ship order and that it anticipates the deposit amount increasing as Eve gets closer to putting its new aircraft into production.
Initial Halo operations will be in and around New York City and London. “These are excellent launch sites given their combination of access to major destinations, regulatory and operational complexity, and the potential for generating time savings to the final destination,” he explained. “We also are considering other cities as potential markets for eVTOL service, and initially may offer Halo’s existing premium helicopter services as a first step. You need the right markets where the speed advantages of private air travel otherwise would be compromised by inadequate ground transportation capacity.”
Ricci indicated that Halo is considering several possible business models for its planned eVTOL operations. These might include some type of subscription model, perhaps along the lines of the membership cards offered in the private jet world, or on-demand charter that might be tied in with services provided by sister company Flexjet for longer flights in fixed-wing aircraft.
Halo has indicated that it will publish its “go-to-market” strategy later this year. Ricci said it is too early to give indicative pricing for the eVTOL flights, but he insisted it will be competitive with alternatives.
Ricci expects that during the first five years of urban air mobility service, eVTOL aircraft will operate from existing ground infrastructure, such as New York’s downtown East 34th Street and West 30th Street heliports. In the subsequent five years, he predicts, “the flexibility of eVTOL services and their limited footprint and lower noise emissions means they can operate out of a variety of takeoff and landing sites, including parking garage roofs.” Halo also sees dedicated vertiports being part of the landscape and anticipates that by the late 2030s autonomous operations “would enable travelers to get as close to their final destinations as possible, given safety, efficiency, and cost and community concerns.”
According to Ricci, OneSky Flight chose Eve’s planned aircraft after considering multiple other options. He said that the Lilium Jet had been assessed but it was determined that Halo’s business plan did not require the longer-range this fixed-wing design is promising. The company also considered Beta Technologies’ Alia eVTOL but preferred what it saw as the greater redundancy of Eve’s propulsion system. Eve has yet to say publicly how its propulsion system will be configured and which company will supply hardware.
Even allowing for the now acknowledged possibility of a merger between Eve and Zanite, Ricci anticipates that the eVTOL developer and its customers will continue to benefit from the production and operational experience of parent company Embraer. “Embraer knows how to bring aircraft through the entire development cycle, including not only the certification path but also the production certificate process, which enables them to build in quantity,” Ricci told FutureFlight. He also flagged up the Brazilian aerospace group’s extensive product support network and ability to contribute to the wider urban air mobility ecosystem through subsidiaries such as Atech, which is focused on air traffic management.
Ricci’s closing comment in his interview with FutureFlight and sister publication AIN was telling in the context of the discussion over the case for eVTOL aircraft developers to be aircraft operators and service providers. “One thing that Eve definitely won’t be doing is operating eVTOL aircraft,” he insisted. “It will just be building them, in the way that Embraer builds but doesn’t operate jets. That’s important, because we want a clear competitive path for this aircraft, with a partner that is focused solely on the craft.”