- How credible are Urban Air Mobility startups?
- Benefits from space-based surveillance of oceanic airspace
- What about electric towing of airliners?
- New thinking about paying for airports and air traffic control
- Low-cost airlines will lead aviation’s recovery
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
How Real Are Visions of Urban Air Mobility?
Just after I finished reading Graham Warwick’s seven-page Aviation Week cover story, “Handicapping the UAM Race,” popular media were filled with stories about United Air Lines “buying” a fleet of “flying electric taxis” from a startup company named Archer, which did not even make the also-rans in the 14-company Aviation Week survey. I think it’s wise to take claims about the imminent introduction of eVTOL urban air taxis with many grains of salt.
The main focus of Warwick’s detailed report was a recent assessment of leading urban air mobility (UAM) startup companies by SMG Consulting. The firm devised an Advanced Air Mobility Reality Index (ARI). They used it to score each of 14 prominent startups on five factors: funding, team, technology readiness, certification progress, and full-scale production readiness. With a potential total score ranging from 0 to 10, top-ranked EHang and Joby Aviation tied at 7.9. Others that have gotten lots of media coverage scored somewhat lower, including Volocopter at 6.2 and Pipestrel at 5.8. Lowest-ranked was Lilium, at 5.5.
In these rankings, no single vehicle type predominated, with six being vectored thrust, five lift + cruise, and three multicopters, but vehicle type bore no relation to a company’s ARI score. Also, three of the companies are focused on cargo and are not discussed in Warwick’s summary of the ARI-rated companies.
So why SMG failed to include Archer in its rankings remains a mystery. Warwick profiled the until-then stealth startup last June in Aviation Week. Founded in 2018 in Palo Alto, CA, its core team includes designers from companies such as Airbus A-Cubed and Wisk, the joint venture of Boeing and Kitty Hawk. Initial funders include co-founder tech entrepreneurs Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, plus Marc Lore of Walmart eCommerce. Getting United’s commitment was a key step toward an initial public offering planned for this year, with an expected valuation of $2.7 billion. Expected investors include Stellantis (the merged Fiat Chrysler/PSA auto company) and several investment funds. Like Lilium, Archer at this point plans to both produce eVTOLs and operate them (though this might conflict with United’s plan to have its Mesa Airlines partner operate the air taxis to bring passengers to its hubs).
Lilium, which ranked last in the Reality Index, is developing a comparably sized prototype air taxi, using vectored thrust. But since its planned market is inter-city, it must have longer range than nearly all the others, which are focused on urban air-taxi markets. Without even an operational 5-passenger prototype, Lilium earlier this month announced an agreement with Spanish infrastructure developer Ferrovial to develop a network of 10 vertiports in Florida, to be served from a hub near Orlando International Airport.
I was impressed by early reports on Lilium’s prospects, but I was taken aback by a lengthy investigative article in Forbes by reporter Jeremy Bogaisky, “Lilium’s New Course: On the Verge of Going Public, It’s Working on a Bigger Air Taxi. Can It Deliver?” (Forbes.com, February 2, 2021) Lilium’s initial fund-raising was based on claims that its 5-seat prototype had a range of 186 miles which it could cover in an hour (i.e. at 186 mph)—both range and speed far in excess of other eVTOL startups’ claims. The initial prototype was destroyed in a battery fire early last year. A former Lilium senior executive told Forbes that the five-seat design “was only a testbed and that the company had already determined before it was unveiled that it wasn’t going to meet the performance goals.” Lilium is now focusing on a larger vehicle with a maximum take-off weight of 7,000 lbs. and a shorter range of 155 miles. It also hopes to get another 5-seater in the air for testing this year. Based on discussions with former Lilium engineers, as well as a battery expert at Carnegie Mellon University, reporter Bogaisky came away skeptical of whether the planned aircraft is even possible, given the limits of current battery technology.
In short, these are still early days for eVTOLs and Urban Air Mobility. Apart from technical feasibility, FAA certification, and airspace/air traffic control unknowns, there is also the question of whether there will be enough demand for these types of service to make them profitable, at fares enough people would be willing to pay.
Benefits Emerging from Space-Based ADS-B
Two more air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have implemented space-based ADS-B surveillance of their oceanic airspace in recent weeks. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) announced on January 29th that this new form of surveillance is now operational in 9 million sq. km of oceanic airspace—the Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai flight information regions. And on February 17th, Iceland’s Isavia ANS made a comparable announcement for its 5.4 million sq. km of airspace, from the North Pole to Scotland and from the Greenwich Meridian on the east to west of Greenland. Both ANSPs have subscribed to the global space-based ADS-B surveillance provided by Aireon.
Major benefits are being enjoyed by airlines traversing the North Atlantic, where NATS (U.K) and Nav Canada were the world’s first ANSPs to implement Aireon’s service, which has been operational since early 2019. With daily traffic in this region reduced from 1,300 to around 500 during most of 2020, the lack of congestion has enabled the two ANSPs to experiment with free-route airspace, rather than restricting all flights to the traditional Organized Track Structure. With OTS, flights had to fly at fixed altitudes and speeds, which were often not optimal for speed or fuel burn. This continued during 2020, but as Tony Osborne reported in Aviation Daily on February 5th, the OTS will be disbanded on days when traffic levels allow. No tracks will be announced on those days, and airlines will be asked to file flight plans of their choice, taking advantage of the latest high-altitude wind forecasts and company priorities for route, speed, and altitude.
Since last year, properly equipped aircraft have been allowed to operate with smaller separations, which considerably expands capacity (though that is currently not a priority, given today’s lower traffic levels). ICAO’s performance-based communications and surveillance (PBCS) framework sets the minimum separations permitted, and they were recently amended to take space-based ADS-B into account. Aircraft with navigation accuracy of RNP4 and communications updates meeting RCP240, flying in the same direction, can be separated by as little as 17 nm longitudinally (tail to nose) and 19 nm laterally.
Space-based ADS-B has not yet been implemented in Pacific oceanic airspace managed by FAA. In an article in Air Traffic Technology International 2021, Alexander Suchkov and Pier Ferraris report the results of their simulation of reduced separations that would be possible on the CEP routes between the U.S. west coast and Hawaii, which under normal conditions handle about 360 flights per day. They estimated fuel and emission savings for two different scenarios, each of which assumed four different levels of PBCS equipage among the carriers serving these routes. For their alternative two, which included three additional CEP routes, the estimated value of fuel and emission savings ranged from $10 million to $17.6 million per year, depending on the fraction of the fleet that is PBCS-compliant.
The article notes FAA estimates that 56% of 2021 traffic on these routes will be PBCS-compliant. Were FAA to subscribe to Aireon’s ADS-B service, that number would get to 100% sooner, resulting in larger savings.
Will Electric Towing Save Enough Fuel to Be Worth It?
For years I have been following the slow progress of start-up companies TaxiBot and WheelTug. The former offers an electric tow tractor to take an airliner—engines off—from the gate to near the end of the taxiway, saving the fuel that would otherwise be burned on taxi-out and waiting in line, engines running. Offering a different means to the same end, WheelTug seeks to persuade operators of mid-size airliners like A320 and B 737 to install an electric motor by which the nosewheel can taxi the plane, engines off. Though operating trials have taken place over the past decade, neither company has persuaded airports or airlines to acquire their products.
But now that aviation is under greater pressure to aim for zero-carbon operations, there is both increased interest in the idea and new competitors in this space. In “Greening Aviation on the Ground,” Aviation Week’s Graham Warwick reviewed this emerging landscape (January 11-24, 2021). WheelTug last September carried out a demonstration of its “pre-production” electric nose-wheel taxiing system on an AlbaStar 737NG at Memphis International Airport, and Warwick reports that it expects certification by the end of 2021. Not to be outdone, TaxiBot in August completed a five-month trial at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, from which the airport plans to use data to model a larger-scale use of the system.
A completely new concept has been introduced by Aircraft Towing Systems World Wide (ATS). Its concept is to build a set of below-grade tracks on airport ramps and taxiways so that an electric tow car on the track would pull each plane (via its nose gear) from the terminal to the end of the taxiway, engines off. It is building a prototype at Ardmore Industrial Airpark in Oklahoma, and it hopes to begin testing next month.
Those are the main alternatives proposed for engines-off taxiing of airliners. Let’s think through how they might actually work at a medium or large hub airport. The first thing to keep in mind is that airports have peak periods. That’s when we see long lines of planes on taxiways, waiting for those ahead of them to take off (or for others to land on the same runway). So there will be a lot of electric taxi vehicles sitting in those same lines, unable to go back to the terminal to pick up other planes—or perhaps to pick up just-landed planes once they reach a taxiway. This applies in particular to TaxiBot and ATS.
For the latter, the amount of trenching infrastructure would be measured in miles, not feet, including both taxi-out trenches and return-to-terminal trenches. And if the ATS tow dollies are to serve all airlines, there would have to be some kind of switching system (as on railroads and rail yards) to get each dolly back to the location of its next taxi-out plane. My guess is that this buried infrastructure would make the ATS alternative more expensive than TaxiBot.
And speaking again of TaxiBot, the current design calls for a driver in the vehicle (even though the plane’s pilot steers it on the way to, and on, the taxiway). But the driver is needed to return the vehicle to the terminal for its next assignment. At peak times at a major hub, there might be several dozen drivers sitting in the conga line, adding up to a considerable new wage bill for a larger workforce.
Finally, there is WheelTug. If the airport is the prime mover in implementing zero-carbon taxiing, then WheelTug presents a problem. The decision to equip a fleet with an electric nose-gear system is an airline decision, which must assess the trade-off between fuel savings on the ground and the extra weight, fuel burn, and cost of the WheelTug installed on all its narrow-body aircraft. (Nobody has proposed such a system for wide-bodies.) I can’t imagine an airport demanding that all its carriers install something like WheelTug as a condition of serving the airport. So this alternative can’t get an airport to zero-carbon towing.
Of the three, I think TaxiBot is the least-bad, but I doubt that any of them will prove cost-effective, either for airports or airlines.
Rethinking How to Pay for Airports and Air Traffic Control
The aviation world is in for a period of lower volume of both flights and passengers, and the post-recovery period may bring permanent changes in who flies where, and when. Yet there are limits to how much air traffic control, in particular, can be scaled back and still safely and efficiently control traffic. Airports can (and have) shut entire terminals until enough demand returns to make them viable again, but ATC can’t do anything similar.
In the latest issue of Aviation Intelligence Reporter, Andrew Charlton suggests it is time to rethink how we charge airspace users for ATC services. Some of this thinking might apply, as well, to airports. Traditional airport runway charges are based on aircraft weight. Similarly, traditional ANSP charges are based on weight and distance. These concepts were promulgated decades ago by ICAO and have been taken for granted by commercial aviation as if there were no alternatives. But, in fact, there are other ways to do it.
As Charlton points out in his February issue:
“Smaller aircraft still cost the same to control [as larger aircraft]—a blip on a radar screen is a blip—but [current] pricing on a maximum take-off weight basis will reduce the return to the ANSP. That will have a real impact on those ANSPs that do a significant amount of en-route [including overflight] control. Estonia, for example, has seen a huge drop in revenue. Large long-haul aircraft will not be flying overhead for some time, if ever again. If, on the other hand, your pricing structure is to share the cost of provision of services [among] all the users, given that the cost of provision is fixed, a reduction in the number of services will see prices for those that do operate go up.”
He notes that similar considerations apply to airports, although as I noted above, airports have more flexibility to temporarily close off all or part of a terminal (and furlough some of those who staffed it), compared with ANSPs. But airports do face reduced revenues if lighter-weight narrow-body aircraft increasingly replace heavy wide-body planes.
Shortly after the turn of this century, ICAO revised its recommended airport and ANSP charging policies. Instead of or in addition to charges based on weight, ICAO now includes demand-based pricing as acceptable. Numerous policy papers, including this Reason piece, have been written on how variable runway charges would lead airlines to change their flight activities, such as substituting a single-aisle A320 for two or three 70-seat regional jets on routes like Chicago to New York or Boston to DC. This would reduce peak-period congestion, as well—especially if the variable runway charges applied to take-offs as well as landings.
Changes like these would be difficult to bring about. Some 15 years ago, U.S. carriers campaigned for ATC charges based on the “a blip is a blip” idea, but they were defeated in part by a massive advertising campaign from the business jet community (which does very well in the U.S. paying a tiny fuel tax and internationally paying weight-based ATC charges). Perhaps “flight-shaming” in this age of green aviation would blunt such a campaign today, with popular support for bizjets paying what it really costs an ANSP to guide them through the skies.
I don’t have an all-encompassing solution to these problems. But in these unprecedented times for aviation, we really need to do some hard thinking about how best to pay for its infrastructure.
U.S. Aviation Recovery Will Be Led by Low-Cost Carriers
Evidence continues to build that, broadly speaking, low-cost carriers will lead America’s aviation recovery and gain market-share from the legacy carriers. That conclusion is based on the stronger financial condition of the non-legacy carriers as well as the LCCs’ strength being in domestic and leisure travel, which is recovering faster than business and international travel. In this article, I am using a broad-brush definition of LCC, to include major airline Southwest, still-vibrant JetBlue, and ultra-LCCs such as Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, Sun Country—and David Neeleman’s about-to-launch startup named Breeze.
To begin with, Southwest is in far better financial shape than American, Delta, and United, so it can and is spending money adding new cities to its network. In recent months it has added 10 new cities, including entry into former fortress hubs such as Chicago O’Hare, Houston Intercontinental, and Miami International. It operated more than two-thirds of its pre-pandemic seats during 2020 third quarter, making it the world’s largest airline by capacity during that period.
Allegiant, largest of the ULCCs, was the only U.S. carrier to break even in the third quarter, operating at about 90% of its previous year’s schedule. Earlier this month it announced 34 new nonstop routes for its spring and summer schedule, adding five new destinations from San Diego, four each from LAX, Nashville, and Portland, three each from Bozeman, Des Moines, Fort Walton Beach, and Houston Hobby, as well as two each from Indianapolis, Austin, Boston, and Clarksburg (WV). Spirit achieved 70% load factors in October and expects to be operating 80% of its capacity this quarter and 100% by summer. It is planning to put back into service 31 A319s that have been in storage.
Speaking of aircraft, the ULCCs are also looking into acquiring used aircraft at bargain lease rates. Sun Country, which operates mostly 737-800s, notes that worldwide some 482 of this model are in storage, and another 1,055 are in various categories of “parked”—and aircraft lease rates are falling. Allegiant operates mostly A320ceo planes. Its CFO Greg Anderson says the pandemic “has created an influx of potential deals for used A320ceos at prices significantly discounted from pre-COVID levels.” Some 949 of this model are in storage, with over 800 more listed as parked.
And then there is Breeze, David Neeleman’s fifth airline startup, which will launch sometime soon this year. It has leased 30 used Embraer E190s to start with, and it has 60 larger A220s on order. Neeleman has made it clear that Breeze will be an ULCC, saying “I think the ability to have the lowest fare is what people want. Handling baggage costs money. Providing food costs money. If you want to upgrade your experience, you can do that. I think people will appreciate that; it’s all in the way we present it.”
Finally, one thought about access by LCCs and ULCCs to airports with constrained capacity, such as DCA, JFK, and LGA. As part of the proposed Northeast Alliance between American and JetBlue, U.S. DOT which makes and enforces the rules on slots at these airports, required both airlines to divest slots at JFK and DCA. Otherwise, the two airlines would control over 60% of DCA slots and, together with Delta, control 80% of JFK slots. But JetBlue originally acquired its DCA slots from American to offset the large increase in AA’s market share at DCA due to its merger with US Airways. But the alliance between AA and JetBlue means the two are no longer meaningful competitors at either JFK or DCA. Consumer group Travelers United is urging DOT to revisit its decision, to ensure that the divested slots go to “independent low-fare competition” at these two airports. Given that we have the government-created slot system, using it to increase (rather than decrease) competition makes sense.
NASA Funding Hypersonic Air Transport Research
As part of its Hypersonic Technology Project, NASA has awarded contracts to supersonic bizjet developer Aerion and GE Aviation to study technologies for flying in the Mach 3-5 speed range. This is similar to a 2020 contract with Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Company, which also focused on that speed range. Both Aerion and Spaceship Company aspire to build hypersonic transport aircraft for long-distance routes.
German Air Transport Group Pledges Net-Zero Emissions by 2050
BDL, Germany’s umbrella air transport association, in December released a “masterplan climate protection” document, agreeing with the European Union’s overall net-zero goal. BDL represents German airlines, airports, and the ANSP of Germany, DFS. The means to the 2050 end include technological innovation (presumably in aircraft and engines), more efficient ATC, shifting some short-haul flying to rail, and an aviation emission trading system.
Alphabet Closing Down High-Altitude Balloon Company
In January, Alphabet announced that it was pulling the plug on Loon, its company providing internet services to developing countries via high-altitude balloons. Its largest operation was in Kenya, using 35 balloons covering 50,000 sq. km. That service will be wound down in March. “The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped,” wrote Alphabet’s Astro Teller, as reported in The Verge, January 21, 2021.
Vinci Airports Researching Hydrogen Infrastructure
In a project with Airbus, Dassault Aviation, and Air Liquide, Vinci Airports is planning research on the airport infrastructure needed if and when hydrogen gains a significant role in aircraft propulsion. The company’s Lyon Saint-Exupery Airport will lead the effort for Vinci, which manages 45 airports worldwide. An initial effort will create a gaseous hydrogen refueling station for ground vehicles.
How Soon Will Commercial Aviation Recover?
A detailed report from U.S. DOT’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology examines “COVID-19’s Effects on the Future of Transportation” in the United States, drawing on the data resources of DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Table 2 in the report estimates that air travel—down 58.3% in 2020 compared with 2019—will be down 44.8% in 2021 but only down 9.3% in 2022 and 1.7% in 2024. The report does not, however, explain the assumptions or methodology leading to those estimates.
Five Priorities for Resilient PNT
GPS World asked Brad Parkinson, the “father of GPS,” for his thoughts on how to make position, navigation, and timing infrastructure more resilient. His five priorities for the Biden administration are to protect the spectrum, protect the technological viability of the aging GPS infrastructure, allow export of anti-jamming technology to high-value PNT users, refocus the military on upgrading its receivers and signals, and take federal action to rapidly identify, shut down, and prosecute GPS jammers. (“What Should the New Administration’s Priorities Be to Make PNT More Resilient?” GPS World, February 4, 2021)
Musk Company Negotiating Ontario Airport Tunnel Project
The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) is negotiating with the Boring Company, the sole bidder for the proposed Ontario Loop. The 6.4 km tunnel would connect a Metrolink commuter rail station in Rancho Cucamonga with Ontario International Airport, at an estimated cost of $83 million. SBCTA has contracted with HNTB to manage the project. Boring Company would build, operate and maintain the tunnel, including a fleet of automated vehicles.
Punta Gorda (FL) Airport Lease Plan Cancelled
The Charlotte County Airport Authority, which had been considering a P3 lease of the Punta Gorda Airport, decided in late January not to proceed with the plan. The project would have been carried out under the federal Airport Investment Partnership Program (AIPP), which requires a super-majority of the airlines serving the airport in question to agree to the lease. Allegiant, the airport’s major airline, had notified the airport authority in December that it did not intend to agree to the lease. This is in contrast with airline approval of the successful San Juan, Puerto Rico P3 lease and similar airline approvals of the proposed leases of Lambert St. Louis and Chicago Midway Airports.
Change of Command at Nav Canada
Neil Wilson announced last fall that he would retire as CEO of the world’s second largest ANSP, Nav Canada, by the end of 2020. Accordingly, on December 31st, the company announced that Raymond G. Bohn will be the new CEO. Bohn is a 20-year veteran of Nav Canada and at the time of his appointment was vice president and chief human resources officer. He took office as CEO on February 1st.
Philippines Scraps $10 Billion Airport Project
A $10 billion plan to build a replacement for Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport at Sangley Point was cancelled at the end of January. The Cavite province government pulled the plug on the project as proposed by China Communications Construction Co. and MacroAsia Corporation, citing deficient documentation and the companies’ lack of commitment to moving forward. The province government said it would issue a new tender for the airport later this year.
Air France Expands Rail Partnership
As part of its government bailout, Air France agreed to new sustainability targets, with one means to that end being to shift more short-haul flights to rail. For 25 years, the airline has offered joint booking with state-owned rail company SNCF. That service has now been re-branded as Train+Air. In addition to the 14 routes where this is already offered, a 15th was added in December: rail from Bordeaux to Paris Orly. Actually, however, SNCF takes its passengers to the Massy TGV station in Paris suburbs, from which customers must take a cab to the airport.
BlackRock to Expand Chilean Airport
As the only bidder for a 21-year concession, investment firm BlackRock and Chilean company Cointer will now negotiate the terms of the long-term P3 lease. The aim of the project is to triple the terminal capacity of the La Florida de la Serena Airport, located on Chile’s coast. The investment needed is estimated at $55 million.
Drones Still a Problem at German Airports
Germany’s DFS reported fewer drone intrusions at or near airports in 2020, totaling 92 last year compared with 125 in 2019. But these incidents still had a “massive” impact on flight operations, the ANSP told Air Traffic Management. One-third of those cases led to air traffic being severely restricted. Drone intrusions took place mainly at large airports, with Frankfurt first, followed by Hamburg and Berlin Tegel. DFS evaluated drone detection systems from six companies between August and November.
Major Project Planned at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport
Last month officials at the secondary commercial airport in the Phoenix metro area unveiled plans for a 400-acre retail and entertainment development on the airport’s vacant east side, including a new terminal. The terminal will come about only if there is sufficient growth in airline service to justify it, officials said. The Gateway East project will be accessible from the new SR 24 freeway, currently being built. The airport, a former Air Force base, has three 10,000 ft. runways, and a new control tower is under construction.
Delta Expands Use of Facial Recognition Technology
Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines announced that will be offering passengers facial scans instead of boarding passes for domestic flights from Detroit Metro Airport, a major DL hub. The new service, developed in concert with TSA, will be available only to PreCheck members who have a passport number. It will be a voluntary option for those flyers. Delta also announced that this digital ID capability will also be available at bag drops and boarding gates.
Puerto Rico Seeks Operator for Regional Airports
The Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnership Authority (P3A) will seek one or more companies to operate and improve the island’s nine regional airports, according to an article in Inframation News (February 11, 2021). It might seek only operating contracts or longer-term investment partnerships, the article noted.
Congressional Research Service on Aviation and Climate Change
CRS has issued an “In Focus” brief on “Aviation and Climate Change,” dated December 7, 2020. It provides a concise overview of greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, as well as explanations of current federal aircraft emission standards, international CO2 standards and market-based mechanisms, and other reduction strategies. It can be downloaded here.
Old vs. New Space Launch Vehicles
In response to two space launch vehicle events within a week of each other last month, I wrote a Reason commentary on the implications of the two events for future space travel and exploration, “A Tale of Two Space Launch Vehicles.”
“Aerospace systems have tended to converge on a dominant system for commercial airliners and stealth fighters. This has yet to happen with UAM [Urban Air Mobility], with designs ranging from drone-inspired multicopters to complex vectored-thrust concepts competing for market acceptance. Nor is there yet a dominant business model. Roles across the value chain from vehicle developer to service provider have yet to be fully defined. Instead, startups are working within the limitations of immature technologies to perform minimum valuable missions that [they hope] will kick-start a new form of aviation.”
—Graham Warwick, “Handicapping the UAM Race,” Aviation Week, January 11-24, 2021
“Regardless of the antics of its CEO, SpaceX and others innovating with speed and urgency need to operate with different rules—ones for innovation. Rules we knew how to apply when we developed rockets and experimental aircraft in the 1950s and 60s. Rules the FAA simply no longer understands nor is capable of managing. Someone—the White House, the National Security Council—needs to intervene and relieve the FAA of oversight of innovation and experimental programs. And have them focus on repairing their basic function of ensuring safe commercial aircraft and airspace.”
—Steve Blank, “The FAA and SpaceX,” Space News, February 5, 2021