Air taxis need a concept of operations, and now this city has one that could become a template

Demonstration flights in Incheon, South Korea, are slated to start this year

Frank Sinatra sang that if he could make it in New York, he could make it anywhere. But for those planning electric air taxi services, the bustling port city of Incheon, South Korea, might be more like it with its islands, military airspace and proximity to hostile North Korean airspace.

Incheon’s complexity created a need for a well-thought-out concept of operations, and satisfying that need has been the aim of city officials and the MITRE Corp., a not-for-profit conglomerate of U.S.-government-funded research centers. On March 18, they posted the “Advanced Air Mobility Concept of Operations for Incheon Metropolitan City.” The 86-page document describes such things as where vertiports should be located, potential routes for air and the kinds of services that should be provided.

Incheon is an ideal place to work through the challenges of defining how to operate this entirely new mode of transportation, says MITRE’s Michael Guterres, who led development of the concept of operations.

The region is home to a major cargo port, numerous islands, an already thriving public transport system and South Korea’s largest airport. Incheon International is 48 kilometers from downtown Seoul and 16 kilometers from North Korean airspace.

“It’s hard to imagine a city that would have more features that are more complex than this. And because they really have very advanced public transportation, they are looking for advanced air mobility to complement,” explains Guterres, who quoted the Sinatra song “New York, New York” to me as the ultimate challenging location for AAM. “Other cities could use it as a blueprint to help them think through what it takes to do this as a city.”

The municipal government of Incheon requested and funded the plan, which is a joint project among the city, MITRE and the city’s nonprofit Institute of Aerospace Industry-Academia Collaboration.

“We have a charter to support U.S. allies, and the topic of AAM is a very hot topic in South Korea, a very important topic for the national government and for city and local governments,” Guterres says. “And so the opportunity came up to collaborate on this, and we took it.”

The authors envision electric air taxis moving cargo, people and emergency workers about the region’s islands and communities, with flights as early as this year by an unidentified variety of air taxis to demonstrate their safety and quiet operation to the public.

Vertiports could be located near the airport, downtown, at a cargo logistics center and at various other locations. Regional service could be initiated someday to other destinations in South Korea, such as Busan, 335 kilometers away, and Jeju, 440 kilometers away.

Incheon officials intend to have the city “lead the charge to realize the benefits of AAM and strengthen the competitiveness and happiness of Incheon’s citizens,” Mayor Yoo Jeong-bok is quoted in the document as saying. AAM is the “practical choice to address the challenges of urbanization and the climate crisis” and is “no longer a dream or a prediction—it is becoming reality.”

Guterres notes that city officials want island residents to be able to travel on air taxis to medical appointments in the city and return the same day. Today, such trips by car currently involve ferries and can require an overnight stay.

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Air taxis need a concept of operations, and now this city has one that could become a template