The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On The Radar

Very Light Jet Air Taxis Were Advanced Air Mobility 1.0 Until the Hype Got Seen as Hubris

There was no shortage of buzz in the early years of the 21st century as pioneers of the so-called very light jets (VLJs) set about revolutionizing the private aviation industry. If that sounds familiar to eVTOL evangelists, it’s because there were some common threads in that trend. There were also some important lessons to be learned from a market trend that never quite lived up to all the hype.

Generally, VLJs were  defined as aircraft that had been approved for single-pilot operations and had a maximum takeoff weight of less than 10,000 pounds. Their relatively low acquisition cost and ability to operate into smaller airfields were supposed to make them the proverbial game-changer for the air taxi market.

It is this benefit of hindsight that two industry veterans are now seeking to share in a bid to help investors make sense of the risks and opportunities associated with what could be characterized as Advanced Air Mobility 2.0 (with the VLJs having been version 1.0). Paul Masson, managing director of Strategic Alliances Resources Network (StarNet) has joined forces with Ken Ross, who spent more than eight years on the leadership team of Eclipse Aerospace—the company behind the Eclipse 500, one of the leading VLJ contenders—and who now runs KRG Global Consultants. Ross and Masson are applying an “evolutionary innovation” business model to their joint consulting practice.

DayJet, a Florida-based aircraft operator, launched services in October 2007, with a goal of having at least 1,000 Eclipse 500s by 2012. It went out of business 11 months later, in September 2008. “DayJet became the darling of the VLJ industry; they said they would buy hundreds [of the Eclipses], but they actually only bought 25,” Ross reflected.

There were other contenders, too, including the Millenium Foxjet, the Spectrum S-33 Independence and S-40 Freedom, the Stratos 714, the AAI A700, the Piper Jet, and the Diamond D-Jet. Most fell by the wayside, but some models made it to market, including the HondaJet, the Embraer Phenom 100, Cessna Mustang, and the single-engine Cirrus Vision Jet.

In their new paper, “A Tale of Two Air Taxi Industries: Planes and Business Models Envisioned to Change American Travel,” Masson and Ross call for a more holistic approach that looks beyond a belief that technology alone will propel the pioneers along an assured path to a pot of gold at the end of the AAM rainbow. The authors also join up dots to leaders in the air charter and fractional ownership industry, who in their own way have sought to expand the market.

“Will the past predict the future and can investors use the past as a guide to allocating capital when asked to support these emerging technologies?” they ask rhetorically while expressing some surprise at just how much money has been poured into the AAM sector.

“The challenge we see operationally is that most of these companies [i.e. the eVTOL start-ups] don’t have an operational component and they seem a little naïve as to how to get operations established,” Ross told FutureFlight. “If you are going to try to integrate everything vertically, how do you break out the profitable parts? Because it is going to be extremely expensive.”

Ross and Masson first met at the EAA AirVenture air show in  Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2005, when VLJs were all the rage. They were involved in a discussion with a group of prospective VLJ operators and what they learned from that spurred them to form the Personal Air Transportation Alliance (PATA) to serve as a forum for the per-seat, on-demand air taxi sector’s key stakeholders. PATA—which grew to include fleet operators, VLJ and turboprop firms, regional aviation authorities, and suppliers—secured acceptance from the U.S. Department of Transportation for a series of air taxi and air charter business model operating changes based on adopting new technology.

At the time, Masson had just finished working with NASA, which put out a study predicting that 10,000 VLJs would be operating in and out of a wide network of hub-and-spoke airports in the U.S. In the end, there were more like 500 aircraft and one airport fitting that description.

From their vantage point, the partners now see huge amounts of low-cost cash driving bold promises of quick returns that they feel have not been adequately scrutinized in some cases. “Back in the day, Eclipse was a billion-dollar failure, the biggest in the industry at the time, and now we’re seeing [eVTOL] companies raise a billion before they even have a product,” Ross mused. “Now some of the new entrants don’t want to be told what they need to consider, and they haven’t recognized the legacy of what is already there. Uber figured that out, and that’s why they got out of this sector operationally.”

Now, he and Masson see opportunities to help other eVTOL startups to chart a more viable and sustainable course. In their view, these will likely be some of the companies that for now appear to be behind the more visible front runners in the AAM gold rush.