Before 2020, the so-called urban air mobility (UAM) market was little more than a pipedream, with more than a hundred start-ups – some backed by big names, others little more than dreamers in a garage – looking at developing quiet, green vertical take-off and landing platforms.
By 2022, eVTOLs have become big business. The sector has pared down to about six to 10 serious contenders, most of which have prototypes in or close to flight-testing. Investors, including on the New York Stock Exchange, have splashed the cash, and a number of major airlines have placed commitments. Several of these new names believe they can have their designs in service by 2025.
For pilots looking for their first break in the industry, there is a huge opportunity. For, although most developers ultimately envisage these aircraft as autonomous platforms, in the medium term – until the late 2030s at least – it is almost certain that trained professionals will be required to be at the controls.
However, this week an official US report poured cold water on some of the most bullish predictions for the UAM market. The Government Accountability Office said formidable hurdles meant industry goals of having aircraft certificated in the next one to five years were unrealistic. The Federal Aviation Administration, it said, was still a long way off coming up with certification standards.
Existing Part 23 rules for small commuter aircraft were not applicable to characteristics unique to eVTOL platforms, said the study. These included the aircraft’s ability to pivot from vertical to horizontal flight. These were not the only challenges. Establishing take-off and landing sites in busy urban centres would also be difficult, warned the GAO.
What of another form of disruptive, planet-friendly propulsion: hydrogen? This week, a yet-to-fly US operator called Connect Airlines said it was ordering 75 ATR 72-600s, which specialist supplier Universal Hydrogen would retrofit to run on the substance. Connect says it is committed to being the “world’s first true zero-emission airline, and the only way to accomplish this is with hydrogen”.
Hydrogen remains an enticing prospect. However, while there is no room to go into the science in detail here, huge challenges remain, ranging from sourcing what is a high-demand and pricey natural gas to how to store it on an aircraft. Liquid hydrogen is simplest to use but to maintain its form at atmospheric pressure requires a temperature of minus 253 degrees centigrade.
As we have written here many times, the airline recovery in Asia-Pacific has lagged North America, Europe and the Middle East. However, zero-Covid-intent China apart, the region is beginning to see passengers return as borders open and restrictions ease. Singapore’s Changi Airport is to launch operations again in September at its flagship Terminal 4 – shut since May 2020.
Meanwhile, any airline celebrating losing money might have seemed bizarre pre-pandemic. However, considering where it was in the depths of the country’s closure from the world, Air New Zealand’s forecast loss for this year – NZ$750 million ($480 million) – represents a return to fortunes for the flag-carrier, which is once again able to operate international passenger flights.
Likewise, over the Tasman Sea, Australia’s competition authority said this week that the country’s airline traffic in April had returned to almost 90% of pre-pandemic levels. The month, coming at the end of the southern summer, is traditionally one of the strongest for the industry as Australians head for the Gold Coast and other beach resorts.
In Europe, the industry’s biggest problem – as we reported last week – is not Covid-19 but staff shortages and other disruption caused by the rapid recovery in demand. In the UK, airlines have taken flak for supposedly selling more tickets than they were able to cope with, resulting in hundreds of last-minute flight cancellations and chaos at airports.
Now, Willie Walsh, chief executive of airline body IATA, has waded in, accusing “idiot politicians” of blaming airlines for failing to ramp up their employee numbers earlier. He says many would have gone out of business if they had. His argument is that with travel restrictions changing almost weekly during quarter one as the Omicron variant spread, forecasting demand was impossible.
However, Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, one of the airlines most affected by the disruption, has called on airlines and airports to work more closely to assess “the level of traffic that we believe we can really handle”. He states: “It is important to take a very sober view on what the summer has in front of us and how we’re going to cope with that.”
His counterpart at Air France-KLM, Ben Smith also warned this week of further disruption and cancellations at Paris and Amsterdam during the busy summer period. Buckle up! After the enforced inactivity of the past two years, the next few months are going to present airline bosses and their staff with a very different kind of problem.
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