Written by Sara Hales.
Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) is coming, and airports need to be ready.
Based on global progress in the industry, it is reasonable to expect early commercial operations of emerging aircraft types, such as eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, being deployed in urban and regional environments as early as 2026.
To ensure inclusion as one of the nations where the first wave of AAM investment and deployment occurs globally, Australia MUST be ready for early commercialisation by 2026. Failing this, Australia will miss out on the opportunity to attract investment from what is a small pool of early players with limited resources to allocate to early commercialisation projects.
Several global AAM industry participants have already made approaches to the Australian market. Australia is seen as an ideal place for early commercialisation of the technology for a variety of reasons, including; a favourable climate, politically stability, a globally respected regulatory environment, a relatively wealthy and regionally diverse population with its own unique mobility challenges, and, importantly, the host location for the 2032 Olympic Games.
While conditional orders for aircraft have been placed by several Australian helicopter operators, and at a Commonwealth level, significant work is being done to support the development of the required regulatory framework, so far none of the States or Territories has emerged with the actionable policy and cross-departmental alignment, required to provide a clear pathway to commercialisation for industry participants.
AAM includes a range of emerging aircraft types. Typically, electric powered, with anticipated evolution towards hybrid and hydrogen systems. These aircraft will largely be vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL), however, there are some aircraft under development that also take off and land on short runways (STOL). AAM aircraft will initially be crewed, however as the technology evolves, the necessary infrastructure is put into place and community acceptance and trust grows, autonomous operations will emerge.
AAM aircraft have a wide range of operating capabilities and will be deployed across a wide range of potential use case scenarios, including urban and regional mobility of passengers and cargoes, essential service delivery, airport transfer services, joy flights and the much talked about, air-taxis.
While these aircraft are, conceptually, not dependent upon airport infrastructure to support their operations, the reality is that airports will play an important role in AAM network development. Additionally, AAM represents both considerable threats and opportunities for airport operators - it is vital that airports start considering how they will react to the evolving landscape now.
Individual airport Boards and Management vary in their approach to date with regard to AAM. Some airports have already considered how the possibility of future AAM operations might be implemented into the airport’s strategic and Master Plan. While, others still seem highly suspicious of this Jetson’s like sci-fi fantasy.
However, airports have 10 years’ notice of a significant industry change, (a change to the regulatory regime, the customer need, the refuelling requirements, the infrastructure requirements, the interfacing between modes, the definition of WHO the customer is), that could threaten the relative market control and comparative geographic monopoly that they have enjoyed to date. It is prudent to maintain an attitude of curiosity.
Advanced air mobility will change aviation forever. Airports are currently in the box seat – but cannot take this for granted. It is essential that airport Boards and Management consider the commercial, strategic, regulatory, and operational implications of a changing aviation environment. The Airport team must start planning now to protect and grow the businesses market position.
The specific strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats relative to AAM will vary across airports, however, here are some high-level thoughts that are broadly applicable and worth some consideration.
Airport strengths with regards AAM
Airports hold a range of advantages and permissions, both formal and informal, that are key to supporting aviation in the current planning, regulatory and social landscape. These can be used to support AAM development.
People who live and work near airports are more accustomed to aviation noise (and indeed, these aircraft will be significantly quieter than those they are used to).
The airport holds status’s with regards the planning regime which allow it to operate as a transport hub, and often, protects its ongoing capacity to do so.
The airport is already a transport hub, facilitating multi-modal transport connections and providing for the safe, positive experience for millions / hundreds of thousands of passengers per year – it has a somewhat captive audience and benefits from established consumer buying and travel patterns.
Airports are experienced in managing safe aviation environments and complying with Australia’s aviation-related regulatory frameworks.
Airports are the epicentre of skilled aviation communities with large work forces and highly technical skill sets.
Airports are the current bases of many AAM first movers – such as helicopter operators and other existing aircraft operators. These operators may move towards a hybrid fleet of traditional and emerging aviation technologies.
Airports can accommodate early AAM operations with little modification required over helicopter landing places. As such, they provide options to establish a viable AAM network of landing locations at low cost.
Airports are the place at which RPT (Regular public transport) air services operate to and from - one of the key initial use cases for AAM is passenger transfer to and from airline services.
However, airports also have some weaknesses that are worth thinking about, especially as they relate to an airports ability to capture the emerging opportunities.
AAM will require significant electrical supply. Most airports have insufficient energy infrastructure to support AAM.
Capturing the AAM opportunity will require access to land. Many airports are constrained in terms of the availability of developable land.
Airports are a relatively high-cost operating environment – AAM operating economics are skinny.
Airports may struggle to find effective ways to interface AAM as a transport mode with their RPT services. This is complicated by the absence to date of a clear regulatory framework to support this planning.
Some airports don’t know who in the senior team owns AAM. Is it a planning problem? An operations problem? Is it an aviation development challenge? Or does it belong to terminals and infrastructure type teams? Perhaps it is the same team who handles land side transport? Is it land side transport? Or air side transport? Or is it a value add for the airline customer? Or is it a property play? AAM will intersect with many parts of the airport business. Due to its importance, the current lack of reliable information, and the breadth of its impact it should be handled by people from the senior executive team.
Potentially AAM operations represent additional air space users which, when considered individually, offer little revenue per aircraft movement compared to larger aircraft. Consideration needs to be given to optimising the use of the airspace. Potentially, maximum capacity modelling will need to be revisited and operational airspace understood as a discrete resource for a greater number of airports.
Next week AVISTRA will explore some of the opportunities and threats posed for airports by the emerging AAM sector. If airports aren’t already thinking strategically about AAM, it’s time to. AAM must feature in the airport’s long term strategic plan and master plan.
As the owner of Greenbird AAM industry collaboration platform, AVISTRA is well placed to assist airport operators who are interested in understanding the business implications, and their own airport’s SWOT with regard to AAM.
AVISTRA provides strategic and commercial advice to airports and government. Visit us at avistra.aero.