Want to hop on an electric air taxi? U.S. officials urge more attention on vertiports, community acceptance

Speakers underscore infrastructure needs during symposium in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

As electric air taxi developers get closer to certification of their aircraft, a host of U.S. government agencies and departments are working to lay the groundwork to ensure the airspace and American society are ready to accommodate them.

Complicating matters, use cases for electric vertical and takeoff landing (eVTOL) vehicles are still speculative, said Peter Irvine, the executive lead for aviation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. He spoke Saturday at the Vertical Flight Society’s Electric Aircraft Symposium in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which I monitored by livestream.

“There has not been a single revenue-producing operation to date,” Irvine said of the proposed electric air taxis, most of which would be eVTOLs, a kind of advanced air mobility aircraft. “There has not been a passenger operation we could refer to.”

Irvine is a member of the 19-agency, DOT-administered Advanced Air Mobility Interagency Working Group, established by the department under legislation signed by President Joe Biden in October. He and other experts gave attendees an update on the group’s progress and thinking.

Parimal “PK” Kopardekar, director of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Institute in Washington, D.C., said air taxi developers and operators will fail financially unless they can quickly build up to high-frequency flights requiring capable infrastructure and air traffic management. AAM vehicles need airspace “access as soon as the vehicles are ready, so the airspace system must be ready when the vehicles are certificated.”

Additionally, he said, getting to operations of that scale will require numerous vertiports and overcoming “other community challenges related to noise and safety and community acceptance.”

During a separate “Community Integration” discussion, Starr Ginn, the AAM lead strategist at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, said “portable infrastructure” will initially be needed for air taxi operations, because there will not be enough vertiports. Existing heliports, which could be converted into multiuse vertiports, will need expensive upgrades, including installing electric charging stations, she said.

These “portable vertiports” would consist of charging equipment and maintenance materials that would be moved among heliports, airports, building tops, hospitals and other sites, along with technicians to operate them. Ginn envisions “vehicles coming to do maintenance and charging and whatever the things that need to happen in between flights.”

Rex Alexander, president of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, consultancy Five-Alpha, has firsthand experience with today’s heliports, having previously piloted air ambulance helicopter flights. He said that most U.S. heliports are not equipped for high-frequency helicopter operations, let alone a steady schedule of commercial air taxi flights that will likely need to be turned around quickly.

“The average heliport may see a dozen operations a month. Some see one or two a month,” he said.

He added: “Oh, by the way, there are no commercial operations allowed” at many U.S. heliports. “Those are some of the hurdles that a lot of people aren’t talking about. I think the use case question is the most important one, because this is all about revenue. And in order to achieve more revenue, we need to have more use cases. In order to have more use cases, we need to have more vertiports in more locations.”

Alexander and NASA’s Ginn each emphasized that vertiports will have to be built community by community, with local governments and residents holding veto power over potential sites and air route networks. Ginn noted that residents living near heliports may be used to low-frequency operations, so even if electric aircraft are less noisy, a constant stream of flights may bring noise complaints.

“I highly suggest you get that community buy-in before somebody starts sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into a specific vertiport location,” Ginn said.

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Want to hop on an electric air taxi? U.S. officials urge more attention on vertiports, community acceptance