On The Radar
A whispered ghostly voice saying “if you build it they will come” was all it took to persuade Kevin Costner’s lead character in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams to make a baseball park appear in an Iowa cornfield. This seems to be the message that multiple advanced air mobility (AAM) pioneers are channeling in their quest to establish the vertiports and other infrastructure needed to get eVTOL air taxi operations up and running.
It’s a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma/opportunity. Can large investments be justified for an as-yet highly speculative new transportation mode? And can the infrastructure get built, with the full cooperation of all stakeholders, in time to meet the promises some eVTOL aircraft developers are making to their backers about revenues flowing by 2024?
SMG Consulting has been tracking new aircraft programs for some time, and now it has started to assess the prospects for ground infrastructure specialists in its new AAM Infrastructure Readiness Index. For now, it lists just five companies—Ferrovial, Urban Blue, Urban Air-Port, Skyports, and Skyportz—but the California-based group intends to add plenty more in the coming weeks and months.
The SMG independent analysts use the following criteria to rate contenders on a scale of 0 to 10: funding, the caliber of the leadership teams, partnerships established to complete the planned AAM "ecosystems," regulatory progress, and the deployment progress of their vertiport networks. For now, Spain-based rail and airports infrastructure group Ferrovial is some ways ahead of its four rivals, based largely on its funding and experience, which are being applied to support partners including Lilium and Vertical Aerospace.
According to SMG founder Sergio Cecutta, cities like Los Angeles and Paris are best placed to see the first eVTOL air taxi services, followed closely by Singapore and others, but he’s convinced that getting the right infrastructure in place is a tall order. “What tends to happen is that companies just look at their piece of the pie, and the crux of the problem is that it [the AAM ecosystem] is a collective thing,” he told FutureFlight. “You need buildings, you need permits, and there is city politics, charging, and ground handling to deal with. People confuse the initial state with the end state.”
But why are the eVTOL manufacturers even trying to involve themselves in vertiports? After all, airlines don’t tend to build and operate airports, and how can there possibly be a case for multiple operator-specific facilities across cities?
“Manufacturers do need to be involved because no one knows these vehicles and their needs like them,” said Cecutta. “But cities don’t want to start dealing with dozens of companies and it’s not going to be viable to have branded vertiports.”
He sees early AAM operations getting underway from existing airports and also existing buildings that are equipped with heliports, as many are in downtown Los Angeles.
In SMG’s view, a lot more work needs to go into addressing issues such as ensuring energy grids can support recharging needs for aircraft. The company also feels that a lot more public affairs engagement needs to be done with stakeholders, and this is where it believes established, well-connected infrastructure providers may have an edge.
But what about “if you build it they will come”? How do we know that any passengers will actually show up to fly when the first vertiports open? Has anyone asked the traveling public whether this is what they want?
Cecutta acknowledged that for now urban air mobility is very much driven by push (“you need this, people”) rather than pull (“we must have this”) demand. He feels that, as with early ridesharing apps on the ground, fares will be kept low through subsidies to draw in consumers and companies will need to have a clear assessment of infrastructure costs to ensure that these can be covered.