The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Counting the Cost of Urban Air Mobility Flights

Much of the hype around anticipated urban air mobility services using eVTOL aircraft implies it will democratize local air transportation. This implies flight prices that will be far more affordable than today’s private helicopter and light aircraft charters, which at face value could seem hard to believe. So FutureFlight tried to assess the basis for these claims.

In its August 2021 Capital Markets Day Presentation, Lilium projected that in 2026 the estimated cost per passenger mile in its six-passenger eVTOL aircraft will be $2.25. This is based on an average of 4.5 out of 6 passenger seats being filled, with 25 flights per day traveling at an average distance of 60 miles for a total of 10 flight hours per day.

Meanwhile, Jaunt Air Mobility puts its price per passenger close to the cost of taking an Uber Black car service. The company calculates its costs using a proprietary model that incorporates pilot compensation, fixed operating costs, depreciation, insurance, energy, maintenance, and battery replacement. Furthermore, the load factor of filled versus available seats is used to help measure the supply and demand on flights, which could be significant given that there are only four passenger seats in its eVTOL.

According to Simon Briceno, chief commercial officer at Jaunt Air Mobility, certain costs are already well understood from existing Part 135 operations and apply to their calculations. “Inherent aspects of the slowed rotor design, intentional design choices, and electric motors will significantly reduce maintenance costs, and energy costs are much lower for an electric vehicle,” he said. “These savings will more than offset the inevitable cost of battery replacement.”

Vertical Aerospace says its vehicle will deliver operating costs of around one-fifth of those of today’s rotorcraft, equating to a per-passenger-mile cost of just $1. It projects typical airport shuttle costs to be as low as $30 to $40 per person, depending on the location.

Affordable Flights For the Masses

With the aim of making its service affordable for the masses, Archer is targeting a $3.30 per seat mile price, with prices expected to decrease as more aircraft become available over time. “We aim to continue to drive operating costs down to the price of ridesharing and, eventually, to the cost of owning a car,” said Brett Adcock, Archer co-founder and co-CEO.

Although the company hasn’t shared specifics on how it gets to this price, they note that their calculation is based on three factors. First, the use of electric propulsion will significantly decrease maintenance costs. It will also allow for a substantial decline in energy-related costs. Finally, the very nature of aerial ridesharing will allow the company to drive daily vehicle utilization levels up, resulting in lower overall costs in the long run.

“In sum, these three factors represent the major cost-saving aspects of our eVTOL aircraft, which will open the door to accessible and affordable air mobility while maintaining the highest standards of safety,” Adcock argued.

The Cost-per-trip Model

Volocopter takes a slightly different approach, using a cost-per-trip calculation as opposed to the cost-per-mile/kilometer model. “These calculations are based on our expected operating costs for the aircraft, its components, wear and tear, resources, fees, staff, etcetera,” said Volocopter spokesperson Helena Treeck. “As we are charging the battery after every trip, and trips are likely to have a similar duration, a global cost perspective per trip is more applicable than one based on seat kilometer.”

While the company is not disclosing anticipated operating costs or estimated cost per trip, it did tell FutureFlight that a ride with Volocopter will be approximately the price of a premium taxi. “At the start of operations, we expect the first passengers to be early adopters, businesspeople, and tourists looking for a unique, new perspective of the respective cities,” adds Treeck. “As flights start to scale, more and more people will fly with us as they would take a regular taxi.”

Towards an Aerial Ridesharing Service

Joby Aviation, on the other hand, has published its numbers. According to the company’s analyst day report in June 2021, it estimates that, in 2026, the price per seat mile will be $3.00. This is based on an average flight length of 24 miles at a cruising speed of 165 mph, carrying an average load of 2.3 passengers and with a six-minute turnaround time.  

“Over time, the cost of a trip per passenger is expected to be on par with an UberX, although we’d expect prices to be closer to Uber Black pricing in the early years of service,” said Joby Aviation chief financial officer Matt Field.

 As to operational costs, the company estimates the following costs per available seat mile: pilot, 22 cents; maintenance, 19 cents; skyport support/landing fees, 11 cents; battery charging, 13 cents; aircraft and infrastructure, 9 cents; and other, 12 cents. This adds up to a total cost per available seat mile of 86 cents. Foreseeing that the aircraft will operate seven days a week, making an average of 40 flights per day, Joby estimates a revenue point of $1.73 per available seat mile.

“Our vision is to create an aerial ridesharing service that saves a billion people an hour a day and we envision a future where our service is widely accessible,” added Field. “But like any new technology, our service will become more affordable as it scales.” 

From Zigzag to Straight Line

It is worth noting that even from the outset, the hypothetical economics of eVTOLs seem to be considerably more attractive than the most common current alternative, meaning helicopters. There’s even an argument to be made that the total trip costs from point A to B via an air taxi may be lower than what it costs to catch a cab. 

“Considering significant savings from straight-line air routes versus the zigzagging of ground routes, air taxi passengers will enjoy a faster and smoother trip led by higher cruise speeds with no traffic congestions,” said EHang’s Eleanor Qiu. “Moreover, operating costs will be significantly lower due to lower staffing needs, lower maintenance costs, and lower energy/fuel costs.”

So, what can we take away from all this? First, if you’re already someone who doesn’t think twice about taking an Uber Black premium ride, then you can reasonably expect to be able to afford an air taxi. In theory, as the service ramps up and the size of available vehicles increases, one can expect to see this price begin to decrease–opening the door to more users and further price reductions. However, that assumption is heavily predicated on the sector achieving an unprecedently rapid ramp-up in the scale of its operations.

That said, many aspects of the eVTOL aircraft operating model are untested in the real world and there are multiple aspects of the cost structure that have yet to be fully determined. For example, will operators share vertiports and other facilities, and how much will it cost to insure these services? With inflation now in the ascendancy in many economies, urban air mobility pioneers will be watching their cost structures more closely than ever as they prepare to launch commercial operations from around 2024.