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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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LAX trips emerge as a promising early market for urban air mobility

New research indicates that demand for urban air mobility (UAM) flights will be highly sensitive to price fluctuations, making airport travelers — who are more likely to pay a premium for time savings — a key customer base for UAM services at launch.

Eve eVTOL Santa Monica
A rendering of Eve urban air mobility aircraft over the Santa Monica Pier, northwest of LAX. Eve Image

Two new papers examine this dynamic for trips serving Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), including one prepared by MIT researchers in collaboration with the EmbraerX spinoff Eve Urban Air Mobility. Titled “Demand Potential for Urban Air Mobility,” it provides an overview of Eve’s demand modeling for the Los Angeles market, projecting that at higher price points, airport trips will account for a higher percentage of total UAM demand.

At a price of around $2.40 per passenger-mile ($1.50 per passenger-kilometer), trips to and from LAX will represent 12% of all UAM trips in the Los Angeles area, the report estimates. At a price of around $5.60 per passenger-mile ($3.50 per passenger-km), that share increases to 21%.

According to the Eve/MIT paper, UAM providers will face significant price competition from other transportation modes. “In the absence of other convenience factors, travelers will be willing to switch from ground transportation to UAM if they value their time more than the cost premium of UAM,” the authors say, noting that a passenger’s willingness to pay for UAM will vary based on their individual value of travel time savings (VTTS) as well as factors like ride comfort and travel time variability.

The airport access market is promising because flows tend to be fairly steady during the day, and the high cost and inconvenience of missing a flight increases the VTTS of airport travelers. Metropolitan area commuters represent another attractive early market, but “typical demand patterns have significant temporal and geographic demand peaks that may be an economic challenge for the feasibility of the UAM system,” the paper notes.

According to Andre Stein, CEO of Eve Urban Air Mobility, the Eve/MIT paper offers a “high-level” overview of a demand modeling methodology that Eve is using to evaluate markets around the globe. “We are doing the math behind the scenes to make sure we are using data to create the right solutions,” he said, adding that Eve’s collaboration with MIT “is a great example of [our] philosophy of co-creating and working with partners to make sure we have the best optimized solution for urban air mobility.”

While Eve does not disclose the specifics of its methodology, a more detailed demand model can be found in “Urban Air Mobility Demand Estimation for Airport Access: A Los Angeles International Airport Case Study,” by researchers at Virginia Tech and NASA Langley Research Center. Lead author Mihir Rimjha shared the paper with eVTOL.com in advance of publication.

The paper describes a model based primarily on a survey of 15,000 LAX passengers conducted in 2019 on behalf of Los Angeles World Airports. After developing a UAM demand estimation framework, the researchers performed sensitivity analyses with respect to UAM cost per passenger-mile and number of vertiports in the UAM network.

“UAM has considerable potential in airport access trips to LAX,” they concluded, estimating that with a network size of 75 vertiports, UAM could capture 3.6% of LAX passenger trips at a cost of $2 per passenger mile (around $1.25 per passenger-km) and 2.4% at a cost of $3 per passenger mile ($1.85 per passenger-km), in addition to a $15 base cost per passenger and $20 landing cost per flight. Those percentages equate to around 7,110 and 4,730 passenger trips per day, respectively.

The researchers also found that because total airport access demand is geospatially concentrated in certain areas, UAM demand is not especially sensitive to network size; doubling the number of vertiports in the model from 50 to 100 only increased UAM demand by 18.5%. LAX to downtown L.A., Anaheim, Hollywood, and Long Beach were identified as the top four UAM corridors in order.

Designing a reliable system

Price and number of vertiports aren’t the only factors that will affect demand for UAM. According to the authors of the Eve/MIT paper, in order to address a substantial share of the idealized demand potential for UAM, vehicles and networks must be designed to overcome challenges such as weather and airspace constraints.

Eve LAX urban air mobility demand
In an ideal scenario, UAM could capture 10% of LAX access trips at a $1.50 per passenger/km price point, Eve/MIT researchers found. Actual demand will be lower due to airspace and other constraints. Eve/MIT Image

For example, they found that weather conditions including thunderstorms and poor visibility could reduce the addressable markets in L.A. by up to 26% on an average day. “However, an integrated UAM system where operational procedures, airspace design, and aircraft capabilities are designed to minimize weather impacts can provide UAM operators (as well as passengers) with assurance of flight continuity,” they write.

Speaking with eVTOL.com, Andre Stein emphasized that reliability will be key to the success of any UAM network. “One of the biggest benefits when you compare with ground transportation can be exactly that reliability,” he pointed out. “When you’re in a car, you don’t know how long you’re going to spend in a traffic jam — it could be two hours, it could be 15 minutes, depending on the day.”

Stein said that Eve is designing its eVTOL air taxi for reliability by “keeping it simple” and planning for maintainability. He added that the company — which recently announced major orders from Helisul and the Directional Aviation brand Halo — has been working with aircraft operators to identify and find solutions for real-life operational challenges.

“You’re going to see more about that pretty soon on some of the exercises we’re doing to . . . really streamline the operation and find all the potential hurdles: from the maintenance side, from the dispatching the aircraft side, from understanding the weather conditions so we optimize the network around that,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Eve is also actively involved in developing airspace management concepts to maximize UAM’s potential. “We need to get that right; we need to create a bespoke solution for UAM traffic management that allows it to scale,” Stein said.

Optimized traffic management solutions will be essential not only for minimizing delays, but also for enabling efficient routing — a challenge in L.A.’s highly congested airspace. Detours to avoid controlled airspace around airports increase travel time and cost, decreasing demand for UAM. In the Virginia Tech/NASA model, as cost per passenger-mile increases, UAM routes with significant detours lose demand more rapidly than more direct routes.

The Eve/MIT paper notes that operators are working with air navigation service providers “to find solutions that will integrate UAM operations into airspace design and procedures. These initiatives will allow UAM to compete efficiently with other urban transport modes.”

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