The Air Taxi Sham

It's all over the aviation news every week and every month in the magazines I get: 

"Air taxi fleet is one step closer to launch"

"EVTOL aircraft could become common in cities in the 2030s"

"Nevermind the Jetsons...the future of transportation looks very electric"

"The average air taxi will be cheaper than an Uber Black"

It was that last one that really galled me enough to write this jeremiad. "Could," "hopes," "might," and other wishful thinking pepper these press releases like an over-seasoned steak. The contents of them are equally unpalatable.

I get the excitement. It's an entirely new type of aircraft and segment of the aviation market. It is purported to be the next leap forward in personal mobility. It offers quick access to otherwise overly-congested areas for a fraction of the cost of leasing a helicopter.

I love the innovation of it all. I love all the electric motors in the various configurations on these designs. Without these pioneers, nothing would get done, in any industry.

Wall Street is excited about this new segment, too. These eVTOL and air taxi companies have already gone public despite never having flown a revenue passenger, or even the aircraft they intend to debut at all. All to the tune of a $1.5T (that's trillion, or "may be" as they say) market cap, no less.

But I'm Luddite, and my view of the future is shaped entirely by my study of the past. I'll just come out and say it: this air taxi/eVTOL stuff is a huge nothingburger. It will flop, big time. It will deliver almost nothing that it promises. Or even the "mights."

The "last mile" that they hope to solve with air transportation is going to be better served by ground transportation for at least a century, easily, and the investors left standing when the music stops. And it will, abruptly.

But these fast risers will end up like HD DVD or Laser Disc, or the flying cars that when I was in school Popular Mechanics swore would be buzzing around for twenty years already; the initial good idea that takes many more years to integrate and become functional (and affordable) for the masses.

The first, most glaring issue is where are all the pilots going to come from? Sure, it will "just" take a commercial pilot's license and the flying might be similar to some low-time helicopter job, but will there be any takers? If they pay enough, this might make a dent in the rotary-wing airevac pilot market, but that would likely degrade the affordability component they claim to be the case. 

The second issue is how is this really going to be affordable? To get a rotary-wing commercial license with instrument rating is going to cost around $75,000. Who is going to pay that kind of money just to fly from Teterboro to Manhattan and back ten times a day? Those manufacturers going for powered-lift are in an even tighter spot: the list of vertical-lift aircraft in which someone could log time contains a lot of "X" designations (military experimental), or bear the names F-35C, Harrier, or Osprey. Really hard for the average Joe to get 50 hours PIC in one of those. For the air taxis to open purpose-built flight academies will really test the true affordability of operating these aerial vehicles. And forget remote operated--public adoption of something like that is light years away.

The third is where are these things going to land at the end of the "last mile?" There may be plenty of heliports in the largest metro areas, but if this concept is really ready for 60,000 (!) units nationwide, where is someone going to land in downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania on the quick hop from KABE? Take some parking lots by eminent domain? Right...

I'm sure you can think of many more non-starters in this industry (if you can call it that). This is why all of those tech startup geniuses make their big bucks, figuring all of this out. But since they can't just force a city park to open a landing zone for their planned 60,000 air taxis they envision buzzing around metro areas in the U.S., this is just simply an idea whose time hasn't yet come, and may not ever. 

In the end, the rest of us will just have to keep driving that last mile until we make our first million (or ten) to buy that Jetson One with some throwaway money.


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