Proponents of urban air mobility (UAM) define the concept as on-demand commercial air transport, and not the private aviation context within which helicopters fly over cities today. The question for airlines is whether they should be interested or concerned. 

Airbus and Boeing see more potential in UAM than simply replacing helicopters with quieter, cleaner, potentially safer and more publicly acceptable electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles. They look at megacities around the world wrestling with how to provide transportation infrastructure for growing populations and see the potential for competition with commercial aviation.

Faced with the prospect of investing billions to build more roads, airports, high-speed railways or hyperloops, the relatively “infrastructure-light” promise of short-range air transport may appeal to city planners. All-electric urban air taxis could rise above traffic gridlock to connect existing transportation nodes—airports and bus, metro and train stations—more efficiently. 

Air taxis could connect these hubs to business centers, malls and venues, and, as propulsion technology improves, they could reach out to the suburbs to reduce commute times and even further to nearby cities to provide efficient, frequent business connections. 

But is the idea feasible? Skeptics cite challenges with battery technology, airworthiness certification, vehicle noise, airspace integration and public acceptance. But for small, short-range eVTOLs—flying two to four people 30-50 miles—battery technology is already adequate. Airbus, Boeing and others are flying experimental aircraft, and Uber plans demonstration flights over cities in 2020.

Certification requirements for eVTOLs are taking shape in Europe and the US and should be ready to enable commercial operations to begin by the mid-2020s. Airspace integration will be an extension of unmanned traffic management work already underway to enable routine operation of drones. And suitable infrastructure already exists in cities in the form of rooftop helipads and parking decks.

Public acceptance may prove a thornier problem, although a new study by Airbus finds one in two people surveyed in Los Angeles, Mexico City, New Zealand and Switzerland supported UAM. The main concerns are safety, noise and equality—with the potential for air taxis being perceived as a premium service only for the wealthy, as helicopters are viewed today.

Proponents maintain eVTOLs will be safer than helicopters and cars, but the safety levels now expected from commercial aviation may be hard to achieve, at least initially. Noise looks more tractable, as the requirement is to blend into the background noise in busy cities and not the quiet countryside. Companies flying eVTOL prototypes claim noise levels 100 times quieter than helicopters.

UAM is expected to begin as a premium service, flying routes already served by helicopters, because initial vehicles will be expensive and limited in capability, and demand for flights between airports and business centers and sporting venues is well established. But Uber and the eVTOL vehicle developers envision UAM as an affordable service and part of the public transportation mix in cities.

This will require low manufacturing and operating costs and high utilization rates unlike any previously seen in aviation. To make its aerial ridesharing service competitive on cost and convenience with owning a car, Uber envisions hundreds of eVTOLs making thousands of flights a day over each city. 

Where does commercial aviation fit in to this picture? Airports will likely be first to feel the impact of UAM if eVTOLs increase the accessibility and affordability of existing helicopter links. In Germany, Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport is working with Daimler-backed eVTOL developer Volocopter to develop concepts for ground infrastructure and operations required for air taxis at airports. The cooperation is focused on enabling smooth passenger handling and efficient integration into existing infrastructure using so-called Volocopter Ports to link urban transportation junctions and provide connections to the airport using Volocopter’s two-seat autonomous multicopter eVTOLs.

In gridlocked cities, UAM could provide more reliable connections to airports. Airbus is gaining experience in UAM through its subsidiary Voom, which is providing on-demand helicopter service in Sao Paulo and Mexico City. Airport connections are proving to be key routes. 

Blade, an on-demand helicopter service connecting downtown Manhattan heliports with the New York-area airports, says it is developing an infrastructure that can easily migrate to eVTOLs as they become available. 

While Los Angeles and Mexico City are seen as early targets for UAM deployment because of their traffic congestion and lengthy commutes, countries such as New Zealand and Switzerland are more interested in eVTOLs as a way to support growing tourism while minimizing the impact on the environment.

Small, short-range aircraft may not seem to be the business of today’s airlines, and the technology has yet to prove itself, but the potential of UAM to change how people travel around cities should not be ignored.