By Will Guisbond

Will is a mathematics student at the University of Vermont, focusing on data journalism and system analytics. He has been flying since he was 14 years old and currently holds his private certificate. Follow him on Twitter @willguisbond.

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McKinsey: Time savings will be top priority for future air taxi passengers

What do potential consumers of eVTOL air taxi services care about? It isn’t sustainability, and it’s not the simple luxury of being chauffeured around, either. Rather, it is, overwhelmingly, speed and convenience — underscoring the importance of designing advanced air mobility (AAM) systems to maximize both.

A new study done by McKinsey advanced mobility experts Benedikt Kloss and Robin Riedel surveyed a total of 4,600 people from Brazil, China, Germany, India, Poland, and the United States on their opinions of AAM technology, including air taxis.

McKinsey AAM survey
The McKinsey survey found that across countries, reduced travel time was most often cited as the main reason to consider an AAM passenger vehicle. McKinsey Image

Across all countries, people were most interested in using an AAM passenger vehicle because of the expected time savings gained when compared to their current mode of transportation. In Brazil, 47% of respondents ranked that as their number one reason for changing over, with India close behind at 41%.

This suggests a correlation between countries with congested urban infrastructure and demand for more efficient transportation options, something many eVTOL companies are eager to take advantage of. It is likely no coincidence then that India and Brazil were also the two countries where respondents indicated the highest willingness to pay a premium for such transportation options. In India, 36% of respondents were willing to pay up to five times as much for a trip to the airport in a passenger air taxi.

On the flip side, in countries where respondents were less willing to pay a premium for AAM technology, that aligned with strong existing transportation infrastructure, the authors found. In Germany, only 11% of respondents said they would pay five times as much for AAM tech, with their comments indicating that Germany’s excellent transportation options reduced the advantages of using an air taxi for airport trips.

As a result of this, AAM systems will need to function with minimal hiccups to properly maximize the number of passengers using the services, said Riedel and Kloss. This is what Riedel calls the “hassle factor.”

“How do we reduce friction and make this a really easy mode [of transportation] to use?” he said. “People may embrace this technology as a novelty once, but unless it actually creates real utility, they’re not going to continue flying.”

Recent modeling studies suggest that demand for air taxi services will fall sharply with weather and air traffic delays or inefficient routing, highlighting the importance of creating a system designed to maximize efficiency. Commuting demand is likely to be especially sensitive to any delays. A 2021 Virginia Tech study led by Mihir Rimjha estimated that just 10 minutes of delay would cause AAM commuting demand in the San Francisco Bay Area to fall by half.

McKinsey air taxi
One challenge for McKinsey was in designing questions about air taxi services that do not yet exist. “You have to paint a picture for [the respondents] that makes it easy to understand what you’re talking about, so they can develop a mental vision of what it is they’re going to compare it to,” said Robin Riedel. Image by Chesky_W/Getty Images

Air taxi operators will have their work cut out for them in scaling up such reliable systems. First mover Joby Aviation is planning to have 850 of its eVTOL aircraft in passenger-carrying service by 2026, according to an investor deck. During an analyst day earlier this month, the company reiterated the goal of having each of these aircraft perform 40 flights a day with an average load factor of 2.3 passengers, for a total of nearly 80,000 passengers moved per day. In short, that is a lot of people who need to get on board with this new technology to meet that goal.

However, the same companies focusing on utility are also emphasizing sustainability, something consumers do not seem to be particularly interested in when deciding whether to use AAM technology, according to this survey. When choosing reasons to consider an AAM vehicle, “the trip would be carbon neutral” was second to last among respondents’ rankings (coming in just above “I would be chauffeured and would not have to drive myself”). Even in a traditionally more environmentally conscious country like Germany, only 22% of respondents chose this as one of their top three reasons.

Riedel and Kloss credit this finding to their theory that eVTOL aircraft are not the solution to decarbonizing the transportation industry. Rather, they say it will be a combination of technology both within and outside of aviation that will contribute to solving the problem.

“If we compare [eVTOLs] to other future technologies, electric cars can beat aircraft,” Riedel said. “I don’t think that eVTOLs are a way to decarbonize the aviation industry, I think eVTOLs can create a whole new market, which is allowed to grow because it is sustainable.”

These types of distinctions are becoming increasingly important as companies invest more and more money into the industry. As of March 2021, according to McKinsey, total disclosed investments in AAM exceeded $8 billion, which shows there is a lot riding on overall consumer acceptance of this technology.

That fact, combined with the growing list of things that must go right to create a fast, reliable service, creates significant challenges for the industry, Riedel said. “We’re talking about a whole new mode [of transportation] with a whole bunch of infrastructure to be built with a whole bunch of people to be convinced,” he said. “There’s a lot of complexity that still needs to get figured out.”

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