Airports and fixed-base operators show signs of taking electric aircraft seriously

Vertiports, charging stations and locations are planned or under discussion by some

Details are beginning to emerge about the planning underway by some major airports and their associated fixed-based operators in the United States to prepare for electric aircraft that will ferry passengers to and from their properties, provided the aircraft are certified by FAA.

Some airport officials have begun talking with developers of electric air taxis, perhaps the most prominent class of designs, to decide where on their properties or nearby these vertical takeoff and landing aircraft should land and take off from, and whether a vertiport must be constructed for them.

Meanwhile, 2024 has been a big year for announcing plans to install charging stations at sites run by fixed-base operators, the companies that often lease space from an airport to host charter aircraft, business jets and general aviation aircraft.

Orlando-based Signature Aviation, which has 200 FBOs in 27 countries, said in March that it will electrify sites across the East Coast and has commissioned a charging station at Manchester-Boston Regional in New Hampshire. In January, Atlantic Aviation, which operates 100 FBOs in North America, said it will electrify sites in New York and Southern California in collaboration with Joby Aviation, at unspecified sites with Archer Aviation and also with Beta Technologies at “several” locations, including Elmira Regional Airport in New York. Separately that month, developer Overair of California announced that it would electrify the FBOs at John Wayne Airport and Van Nuys Airport in collaboration with FBO owner Clay Lacy Aviation, which has 34 FBOs in the United States.

FBOs are a logical location for early electric aircraft service because such facilities already provide fueling, maintenance and amenities for private, general aviation flights, says Chris Oswald, the senior vice president for safety and regulatory affairs at Airports Council International-North America, a trade association that represent airports and aviation companies.

“FBOs already offer the services and transport to the main terminal that [electric] air taxi passengers will need,” Oswald tells me.

Initially, says Oswald, accommodating electric aircraft flights at FBOs will be fairly easy as long as the traffic is relatively low-volume and the aircraft pilots adhere to visual flight rules “in much the same way they accommodate helicopter operations today.”

It’s only when electric aircraft traffic, for urban air taxi routes or regional commutes, ramps up that airports and electric aircraft companies will need to plan for additional infrastructure and air traffic control, he says, and that could be many years or decades away.

Regional flights from one FBO to another may be one of the earliest use cases for electric aircraft, says Alex Gertsen, director of airports and ground infrastructure at the National Business Aviation Association, based in Washington, D.C. He refers to the broader pool of electric aircraft under development as advanced air mobility.

“I think the goal for our AAM operators, as they first start operating, will not want to build major infrastructure, but rather set up operations that work with the current system as much as possible, like FBOs,” Gertsen says. “When it comes to building a dedicated vertiport for air taxis, every airport is very unique in terms of where that will be located.”

While no electric aircraft are yet providing commercial passenger service, Arizona company SMG Consulting tracks the locations that plan to accommodate them.

“FBOs are beautifully made for the start of AAM service, but they are not built for the high volume expected in coming years,” says Sergio Cecutta, SMG’s co-founder.

He’s not sure if adding an electric charging station to an FBO necessarily means you can call it a vertiport. “I suppose that would be the simplest vertiport possible. FBOs have everything a vertiport requires. This is real competition for anyone planning to get into the vertiport business, in the early years of AAM service anyway,” he says.

Scott Cutshall, senior vice president for strategy and sustainability at California-based Clay Lacy, tells me: “The primary task of the FBO under its lease is to provide fueling, and that is evolving now to include charging batteries.”

He predicts that the cost of taking an electric air taxi in the first years after they become available will limit their use to corporate clients or wealthier individuals who currently fly through FBOs.

“If we prove that these air taxis can save time and get you off the road at an affordable price, that’s when the service will really take off and we’ll see new networks of vertiports,” he says, “but until those things are proved out, I think it’s mostly at FBOs.”

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Airports and fixed-base operators show signs of taking electric aircraft seriously