Air taxi companies eye small airports for initial operations

Advanced air mobility could tap into underused local, regional facilities

Local and regional airports that are not operating at full capacity could provide initial bases of operation for advanced air mobility companies aiming to provide passenger and cargo services in the United States with a new breed of electric aircraft in the coming years, experts said.

Air taxi builders including of Virginia plan to fly in and out of these airports, which are bases for today’s general aviation aircraft. That is a logical first step for the emerging air taxi industry, Alex Gertsen of the National Business Aviation Association told me in a phone interview.

“We have 5,000 public-use airports in the United States, but airlines service only about 500 of them,” said Gersten, director of airports and ground infrastructure for the nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “As you can imagine, that leaves quite a few airports with excess.”

Gersten said he and other aviation observers believe the nascent AAM industry will lead to a renaissance of local and regional airports. Many air taxi companies may eventually build their own networks of vertiport takeoff and landing pads on sites including the tops of parking garages, but their plans to start ferrying passengers as early as 2024 means they might have to rely on existing infrastructure for their initial flights, Gersten said.

He added that this might be a welcome change for nearby residents, as these in-development small electric aircraft are being designed to fly more quietly than today’s turboprop planes and regional jets that run on conventional jet fuel.

“I think AAM is going to change the whole perception of airports as noisy neighbors, and people will want to build and expand and grow this aviation infrastructure because so many more people will have access to our transportation as the result of these regional general aviation airports,” Gersten said.

But that doesn’t mean the change would be seamless. The biggest concern on the airport side will be ensuring that they have the necessary equipment to charge these air taxis, which include electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and electric short takeoff and landing planes.

“We don’t want these aircraft to be rolled out of the hangar, looking nice and pretty and certified, and then not be able to fly places because there’s no electrical infrastructure,” he said.

Several AAM companies including California-based Joby Aviation and Germany-based Lilium and Volocopter are targeting Florida cities for early operations. That’s because there is heavy regional air traffic between the state’s five largest cities, said Richard “Pat” Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, who owns part of VerdeGo Aero, a company that is developing hybrid-electric engines for undisclosed aircraft.

Joby and Lilium have announced detailed plans to build their own vertiports, but they may not be ready in time if the companies begin service in the mid-2020s as planned. However, Florida’s existing regional traffic may mean some of the state’s small airports will be unable to accommodate air taxi flights, Anderson said.

But, he added, that may not be the case in every state.

“In many states like Pennsylvania or Ohio or Wyoming, they have little airports in nearly every town that have a ton of capacity,” he said. “So I do believe AAM companies can tap into those networks with little adjustment.”

Each airport will approach the onset of air taxi service differently, depending on their capacity and facilities, said John Eiff, airport manager at DeLand Municipal Airport in central Florida.

“We’re pretty saturated with what we’ve got, but there are an awful lot of general aviation airports that are under capacity, and I believe these new aircraft will be able to operate out of them,” Eiff said. “DeLand just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

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A rooftop helipad sits atop a modern building, with a cityscape on the left and an airport with planes and mountains in the background on the right. A drone-like aircraft hovers above the helipad.
Not all air taxi companies plan to operate out of airports. Some including Lilium of Germany plan to construct vertiports atop parking garages or build brand new facilities at ground level. Credit: Lilium

Air taxi companies eye small airports for initial operations