As those who watch the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry know, vertiport development has not been keeping pace with timelines for the expected commercialization of eVTOL aircraft.
“We are at a critical time now to get moving on vertiport networks,” said Clem Newton-Brown, CEO of Australia-based vertiport developer Skyportz. “Regulations need to be changed, community license achieved, development approvals granted, sites secured and finally, building and commissioning. The investment that has gone into eVTOL development will soon need to be doubled down into vertiport infrastructure networks.”
Enter the new AAM Infrastructure Readiness (AIR) Index, which is already bringing attention to the need for greater investment.
“With conventional aviation, if you build a new plane, you already have places to take off and land it,” explained Sergio Cecutta at Arizona-based SMG Consulting, who created the index with colleagues. “With AAM, everything is being built from scratch. It’s a catch-22. If you don’t have the infrastructure, you can’t get the industry off the ground, and if you have the landing sites but no aircraft, same thing. But eVTOL development is out in front.”
Carlo Tursi, CEO of UrbanV (formerly Urban Blue), a vertiport network developer in Italy, said this index sheds some light on the importance of getting infrastructure built “in time for eVTOL deployment around the world.”
A look inside
Cecutta and his team approached the creation of the AIR Index similarly to how they created their AAM Reality Index, which applies to ongoing eVTOL development. The AIR Index scores AAM infrastructure companies from 0-10, with a score of 10 representing a company with several commercially-operating vertiport networks in different countries. (And just to be clear, Cecutta does not expect any firm to reach the top score until sometime in the 2030s.)
The AIR Index, he explained, is unbiased and data-driven, based on a proprietary tailor-made algorithm that uses publicly-available information and asked-for information — plus a little expert interpretation of it all (for example, what a company announcement really means).
The index is based on five aspects: the leadership team, how much funding has been received, partnerships, regulatory progress and actual progress with vertiport network construction.
Besides guiding investors, Cecutta said the AIR Index enables everyone inside and outside the entire AAM industry to see how overall readiness is going, and also which countries and regions are farther ahead than others.
“It’s already brought a lot of attention to the infrastructure side of the industry,” he said, “which is important. And we are looking at adding about 15 other companies. As soon as we put the index out, we’ve had a lot of people contacting us to let us know about various firms that have not been in the public eye but are making progress. We’ve been really surprised at the information we are receiving.”
Scoring so far
Right now, Ferrovial holds the top AIM Index score. “Of the five companies for which we have the data we need to do the scoring,” Cecutta said, “Ferrovial is out in front for two main reasons. It has a multinational company behind it with a big purse, and secondly, the team is very experienced, both in volume of experience over the years and with every aspect in dealing with airport projects in various cities. There is no substitute for experience with dealing with different cities. Miami is not Los Angeles, for example.”
UrbanV is in second place right now, even though it doesn’t have a vertiport prototype constructed like Urban-Air Port, which is in third place.
But UrbanV, Cecutta noted, has more of the all-important experience. It’s a joint initiative of Aeroporti di Roma (the two airports in Rome), the Venice Airport management company (SAVE), Aeroports de la Côte d’Azur and Aeroporto di Bologna, with partnerships with eVTOL developer Volocopter and infrastructure investment holding company Atlantia.
“We like to emphasize how our strong background on aviation infrastructure gives us a head start on designing vertiports, and strong technical foundations to build upon,” Tursi said.
UrbanV is designing vertiport networks in Rome, Venice, Nice/Côte d’Azur and Bologna, with a goal of starting up the first commercial route in Rome by the end of 2024, connecting Rome’s Fiumicino airport with the city center.
“In order to do so, we are in constant dialogue with the local authorities and regulators,” Tursi said, “with whom we have been collaborating for a long time already in order to ensure that everything will be ready in due time.”
Cecutta noted that this knowledge of regulations, land use and more is critical to create commercially-operating vertiport networks. “You look at the team and every one of the teams [of the five firms rated so far] has a broad skillset,” he said, “but do they have all the pieces that are needed to be successful?”
Indeed, in the view of Rex Alexander, president and executive director at Indiana-based Five-Alpha consultancy, while the index is a great first step in measuring readiness, focusing in on five distinct groups in the “team” parameter is required to define a complete formula for company success.
Few aerospace company teams have ever shown expertise in all five, he said, “and while there are a lot of good airport designers, builders, managers, owners and investors out there, few have experience in powered/vertical lift infrastructure, and it is a different animal. For a complete picture, the index will need to account for these separate disciplines and include an experience scale for powered/vertical lift.”
More about ratings
Although they’re out in front now, Ferrovial and UrbanV could find themselves behind others in the index as time goes on.
“We expect quite of bit of rating change,” Cecutta said. “The vertiports need to be built but also operational in terms of airspace, regulations and providing actual service.”
With regard to Skyportz’ fifth place score, Newton-Brown said his company’s rating reflects the fact that it’s “a very lean operation” that has “sought only the seed funding we believe is necessary, for now,” to quickly build the first vertiport network in Australia.
“However,” he said, “we believe that we are actually further advanced than any other vertiport company as we have so many sites ready to activate and many more coming online soon. “Without access to sites and strong property partnerships, it will be impossible to build vertiport networks, no matter how much money you have raised.”
Newton-Brown added that “we have over 400 sites available to us in Australia with very positive government support, too. When the rules and regulations change, we will be ready to take on a major equity partner to build out the network, with assistance from our other partners such as Arup. Ultimately, we will likely end up partnering with one of the larger airport operators or infrastructure investors when the time is right.”
How governments might or should provide various types of funding for vertiports is also a subject of hot debate right now.
Since the launch of the index, Cecutta said he’s been surprised to receive information on so many companies that are out there making progress on vertiport infrastructure.
But has anything else emerged for him and his team in terms perceiving global infrastructure progress since AIR went live?
“There are two trends, I think,” he said. “You have cities like Singapore pushing the boundaries, doing the work to be first, and then you have the big players in the U.S., Europe and China. Being the pioneer and being a big area of activity both matter. Singapore may emerge as the first urban market, but its market size will pale beside some regions of Europe, southern Florida or Los Angeles, which is the largest urban area in the U.S.”
And if you like AAM indexes, there is good news. SMG Consulting is working on another one, topic to be announced soon.