On The Radar
In recent years, much of the mainstream buzz surrounding advanced air mobility (AAM) has focused on small, futuristic aircraft concepts like electric air taxis and so-called “flying cars” that affluent urbanites might use to bypass traffic jams in crowded cities. While the thought of whizzing around cities like characters in The Jetsons may captivate the public’s imagination, there’s another revolution brewing in the aviation industry that is far more likely to affect the lives of ordinary people: a resurgence of regional air mobility.
Recent advances in aerospace technology and the push for more sustainable air travel, as well as growing frustrations over traffic jams and airport congestion, are paving the way for a resurgence of short-range flights, according to a recent report by analysts at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The key technologies driving interest in regional air mobility (RAM) include new propulsion systems that produce less noise and zero emissions, as well as autonomous flight controls that could alleviate the pilot shortage by enabling single-pilot operations or even eliminating the need for onboard pilots.
McKinsey defines regional air mobility as the transportation of passengers or cargo across distances of 150 to 800 kilometers, or about 90 to 500 miles, in aircraft that seat five to 50 passengers. In contrast, urban air mobility (UAM) involves smaller, predominantly electric-vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft with a much shorter range. Whereas UAM might allow passengers to make quick intracity trips, RAM could provide alternatives to long-distance road trips with flight routes that are more affordable, more energy-efficient, less time-consuming, and more convenient than driving a car.
In data from 2019, McKinsey found that air travel accounted for only 8 percent of journeys between 150 and 800 kilometers in the U.S. and 4 percent of those in Europe, and most of those flights involved large commercial airliners. Historically, the number of small commercial aircraft operating regional flights has only declined as airlines have sought to boost profits by using bigger airplanes and consolidating operations at fewer, larger airports.
For middle-mile journeys, nowadays driving a car is often cheaper, more convenient, and possibly even faster door-to-door than catching a flight. This may no longer be the case in the new era of RAM as shorter-range flights become more economically viable, the McKinsey report suggests. However, as the authors note, “the emergence of the RAM market is not a foregone conclusion.” It will depend on several key enablers beyond the availability of new technologies. According to McKinsey, these critical enablers include new energy infrastructure at airports, a substantial increase in the regional fleet size, and a seamless customer experience.
Compared with UAM, the launch of new RAM services may also be more feasible in the short term. Not only will UAM employ an entirely new class of aircraft that has never before been certified, but it will also require significant investments in new ground infrastructure, namely vertiports. Meanwhile, regional flights could utilize existing, previously certified airplanes retrofitted with hybrid-electric or hydrogen-powered propulsion systems that are expected to enter the market as early as 2024. Regional flight operations can also leverage more infrastructure that already exists, including the thousands of small airports across the U.S. where most commercial airlines don’t operate today.
According to McKinsey, the RAM market is already taking shape, with more than 50 companies developing key enabling technologies, including (but not limited to) battery-electric, hybrid, and hydrogen fuel cell powertrains for both new aircraft and retrofitted legacy airplanes. The report notes that more than $1 billion has been invested in RAM start-ups. McKinsey analysts have projected that the total addressable market for small regional flights globally could be worth between $75 billion and $115 billion by 2035, serving 300 million to 700 million passengers annually.