German eVTOL developer Lilium, in partnership with Tavistock Development Group, has committed to invest approximately $25 million to develop what may be the first vertiport in the United States intended for passenger eVTOL transportation. Located in Orlando, Florida, the development will serve as Lilium’s first hub for a high-speed electric air mobility network — and a test of its regional air mobility model that will be carefully watched around the globe.
Home to Disney World, Orlando is one of many tourist attractions scattered throughout Florida. The state has long struggled to improve connectivity between its major cities and destinations, a problem that will worsen as the state of 21 million expects to add 4 million to its population by the end of the decade.
In 2014, construction began on Brightline, a high-speed passenger rail project between Miami and Orlando — the first such private investment in the U.S. in over a century. Its investors, and other real estate developers, began significant revitalization efforts in the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and other cities along the planned rail route. Through these development efforts and the significant existing tourism industry along Florida’s eastern coast, Brightline hopes to exemplify how private passenger rail can succeed in the United States.
Enter Lilium. One of the best-funded competitors in the eVTOL space, Lilium has positioned itself as a provider of regional air mobility, connecting cities in a region rather than regions of a megacity. With its Lilium Jet targeting a 186-mile (300-kilometer) useful range at a speed of 186 mph for five passengers, the company believes air mobility over a longer distance will prove more useful than the intra-city approach, championed by Uber, of shorter hops over gridlocked traffic.
On Nov. 9, during a meeting of the Orlando City Council, Lilium struck a deal to receive up to $831,250 in economic development-related tax incentives to develop its first vertiport, justified by the anticipated creation of 140 jobs with an average salary of $66,451, which is above 125 percent of the average annual salary in Orange County.
Built in partnership with Tavistock Development Company, Lilium’s vertiport will be located in downtown Lake Nona, a wealthy, rapidly-growing planned community in the suburbs of Orlando. The exact location is about a 10-minute drive from Orlando International Airport (MCO), which Lilium cites as “the origination site of more than half of the region’s 75 million annual visitors.”
The vertiport itself will have two landing pads and eight gates for aircraft charging, able to accommodate “hundreds of thousands of passengers per year,” according to Lilium chief operating officer Remo Gerber.
“At launch, the price point is probably going to be more of a business-class type of trip, comparable to a flight from Orlando to Miami in business class; in some countries, you would compare it to first-class rail,” Gerber said during a press conference announcing the vertiport project. “Over time, we’re very committed to making it more and more affordable as a mode of transportation . . . five to 10 years post-launch, it is entirely conceivable that it might come to a price point similar to driving your own car.”
Orlando has been following developments in the eVTOL space for over three years, according to Matthew Broffman, the city’s director of innovation. While cities along the Brightline rail route are hopeful it will be an economic boon for their region, the astronomical cost of rail construction severely limits its application. That’s where Lilium’s regional air mobility is viewed as a complementary solution.
“Our strategy, under Mayor Buddy Dyer’s leadership, has been understanding what value eVTOL brings to our residents and our visitors and finding the right partners to pursue those goals,” Broffman told eVTOL.com. “As a polycentric region with various activity centers, connectivity has been a challenge we’ve faced for decades. Lilium’s project brings an opportunity to connect Orlando to other Florida cities, which in turn would extend economic activity across the state and allow for regional tourism opportunities.”
“Part of what makes eVTOL attractive is the low investment needed in infrastructure,” Broffman added. “You essentially have the same costs at the various destinations but no costs in between those points. This allows a system to scale quicker and without the environmental impact and community division that can come with building rail. It also allows for more flexibility, both in destinations and capacity. With rail, if you have a station that’s doing really well and you want to increase service, you’re limited by the tracks . . . with eVTOL, you could build another vertiport nearby and double capacity in a relatively inexpensive way.”
Orlando chose Lilium as its partner due to shared values around environmental impact, prioritizing noise and safety, and early engagement of residents to ensure public acceptance, Broffman told eVTOL.com.
For Lilium, Orlando offers a region with a connectivity problem to solve and more than 20 million residents within a 186-mile radius of its initial hub. Perhaps critically, Lilium will also tap into a market of tourists, who may be willing to spend more to get from Universal Studios to the beach in a futuristic air taxi that becomes a highlight of their vacation. More vertiport locations developed in partnership with Tavistock are to be announced in the coming months and years, according to Ben Weaver, managing director of Tavistock group and former CFO of Signature Flight Support.
Whether Lilium’s jet will be certified in time for the opening of the vertiport in 2025 is an open question. The company’s design has drawn some skepticism from other players in the eVTOL market, and its prototype was damaged in a fire that broke out during ground maintenance in February. Lilium has not responded to inquiries regarding whether flight testing has resumed since then.
Lilium and its investors are confidently moving forward, however, and local officials such as Florida state senator Jeff Brandes view the company’s service as a perfect blend of three mega-trends underway in mobility: a shift toward more shared, more electric, and more automated transportation options.
“We look forward to experiences that this new mode of transportation will provide to our residents and visitors for years to come,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “Today marks the first step in a major change in the way that people move from city to city — a change that will be efficient, more environmentally friendly and will allow cities across the country to be more connected than ever.”