Advanced air mobility could disrupt future transportation

Nicolas Sanz Ernest, partner and European head of the Aerospace & Defence practice at Kearney, examines the prospect of widespread advanced air mobility and what this means for the transportation and aviation sectors.

Just as the stagecoach improved on horse travel, the jet engine took over from the prop plane, and the hydrogen-powered bus is beginning to supersede its petrol-fuelled iteration; the transport sector has a history of rapidly incorporating and capitalising on new technology – particularly when it comes to aviation.  

The next breakthrough that is likely to disrupt existing business models is advanced air mobility (AAM), an air transport system concept that integrates transformational aircraft design and flight technologies into current airport and transportation operations.  

Indeed, AAM stands to revolutionise the transport sector, significantly altering mobility both within and between cities over the course of the next two decades, with hundreds of firms gearing up globally to deliver the world’s first ever ‘flying car’. 

Flying taxis by 2040 

AAM makes use of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL), which can be used in both manned and unmanned vehicles when transporting goods or people. This key technology in the use of AAM is likely to be used in over 200,000 vehicles in the passenger market alone by 2040, according to estimates by Kearney.  

This makes the prospect of flying taxis a very real consideration by as soon as 2024, when leading passenger eVTOL equipment manufacturers are expected to achieve certification. However, how will the use of eVTOL technology look in practice?  

To paint a clearer picture: the use of 200,000 eVTOLs is around seven times that of the number of civilian helicopters flying today, leading to a passenger services market that Kearney estimates will be valued at around $160bn by 2040, or one-eighth of the size of the current airline passenger market and one-third of the rail passenger services market across the globe.  

Impact on the transportation value chain 

As a result of this rapid market expansion, AAM using technologies such as eVTOL will become a direct competitor of many of the transportation sectors and aviation services many of us make use of today. Once mature, the introduction of AAM to towns and cities will reshape existing infrastructure and value chains.  

Of note for airport and aviation transport operators, the impact on the civilian helicopter sector may in fact be largely complimentary, due to differences in flight performance and use cases for the two travel modes. For example, a mixed fleet of helicopters and eVTOLs could give operators more flexibility for urban flights, while in urban environments much of the infrastructure could be shared. 

However, the increased use of eVTOL technology is also likely to create additional pressures to lower noise and CO2 emissions produced by helicopters, which currently stand 15 times greater than eVTOLs on a per kilometre basis.  

General aviation will be the most impacted sector once the use of eVTOLs becomes fully operational, as travellers favour the use of convenient air taxis over turboprops and business jets, which have significantly higher carbon footprint and cannot land in urban environments. This makes eVTOLs significantly more competitive for distances up to 300 kilometers.  

Meanwhile, commercial airlines may try to capitalise on this emerging market, adding the use of eVTOLs to their current offerings for ultra-short-haul flights; however, this will require the adaptation of airport infrastructures and new spaces for travelers to embark and disembark to allow for the provision of seamless and rapid connection.  

Improved decarbonisation, digitisation, and business models 

One of the greatest changes prompted by AAM will be the facilitation of improved decarbonisation, digitisation and business models. Indeed, technology in alternative transport modes will have to learn to keep pace with AAM, or rapidly lose out. 

At current projections, if the aviation sector fails to decarbonise its short-haul fleet, it is likely that emissions will grow from 920 million tons in 2021 to more than 1.4 billion tons by 2040. However, the introduction of eVTOL technology could galvanise the aviation sector to offset some of its short-haul carbon footprint. By 2040, AAM on its own could save over seven million tons of CO2 globally, assuming 100% renewable energy sourcing.  

Both environmental considerations and technological capabilities are likely to have an impact on wider business models; AAM could reshape airline networks especially if further developments of eVTOLs have increased range and seat capacity to facilitate medium-long haul flights.  

Additionally, the re-shaping of existing aviation networks could result in the convergence of airline business models, with AAM acting as the bridge between long haul flights and short haul flights in cities with more than one airport.  

The advent of AAM for the transportation sector may well prove to be the next technological step-change, the next jet engine to replace the prop,. AAM will also give rise to new passenger journeys – while, paradoxically, likely easing urban congestion.  

Consequently, incumbent transportation players must re-consider their approach to fossil fuel-based mobility, in order to make the most of this new wave of shared, digitally-connected, and autonomous sustainable mobility.