As the investigation into the March 2018 crash of a FlyNYON-chartered photo-tour helicopter in New York City draws toward a close — the final report is due in December, though evidence was released last month — the twists and turns continue to stack up. Questions about the company’s operational methodologies, its safety culture, and even its PR tactics have left aviation-industry observers baffled.
But there’s a subset of the industry that should be paying particular attention to this specific accident: the eVTOL community, and within that the developers of electric air taxis. The accident and the myriad missteps FlyNYON appears to have taken in both offering its product — doors-off photo flights for untrained amateurs — and responding to a highly visible disaster represent a focused, nearly all-inclusive case study into what not to do when launching a new rotorcraft offering geared to the general public.
The most notable parallel, perhaps, is that FlyNYON developed a helicopter-based product that used crowd-sourcing and social media promotion to entice average consumers into the cabin, something that’s likely to be key to the development of electric air taxis, as well. The risks of this strategy became apparent after the FlyNYON flight in 2018 crashed due (apparently) to a front-seat passenger’s accidental activation of a fuel cutoff valve. That billboarded the vulnerability that conventional small aircraft — typically designed for trained professionals — have when occupied by exuberant, enthusiastic passengers. Though safety briefings and passenger placement goes a long way toward preventing mishaps of this sort, new eVTOL aircraft will have to be sanitized against passenger intervention.
What might that mean? It’s difficult to say, because the aircraft control systems and interior designs have yet to come into focus. But it’s safe to say that passengers should not be able to access aircraft controls, whether accidentally or intentionally. There will, after all, be passengers who move around a lot, whether out of excitement, agitation, or nervousness, and it’s a statistical inevitability that there will be “bad actors” who will deliberately attempt to interfere with the aircraft. The solution could be as simple as compartmentalizing the aircraft, but it will also likely involve artificial intelligence to detect inappropriate behavior, security measures to guard against different types of internal and external interference, and advanced control systems to keep the aircraft in a safe condition even if someone on board attempts something.
Another key parallel is the recently divulged evidence that the passenger who apparently activated the fuel cutoff valve in the Airbus AS350 B2 AStar, owned and operated by Liberty Helicopters, was under the influence of alcohol at the time. This could have amplified his behavior and diminished his ability to control it. In the future, many consumers will see air taxis as a means of getting home if they’ve, say, had too much to drink at the office party. Though using air taxis as a flying “designated driver” has obvious appeal, there are risks to this. Everything from passenger behavior while on board — i.e., amplified excitement similar to what the passenger on the FlyNYON flight exhibited — to discomfort on the part of fellow passengers who’ve been paired up with that person, to actual violence and criminal misconduct. There could be medical emergencies related to the inebriation while in flight, harassment, or simply intensified motion sickness.
Of course, the industry will need to protect its flights against inebriated passengers, via technology and strictly enforced policy. Breathalyzers might be required, and it may be deemed appropriate to forbid anyone under the influence from getting anywhere near the aircraft. After all, autonomous cars will likely arrive coincident with autonomous electric air taxis, and they can be enlisted to drive home the partiers at far less risk.
Most critically, the prevention strategies likely need to be foolproof and fully autonomous, since ground personnel and even pilots — usually the last line of defense against inebriated passengers — may not be present at all in many of these flights. This is due to the sheer manpower that would be required to supervise the passengers in the volume of flights currently anticipated by the industry, and the simple fact that these flights may also be picking up passengers at unconventional spots, not just vertiports and designated landing pads. They could be going to residences, neighborhoods, empty fields, and more. If a passenger arrives at an autonomously operated aircraft under the influence — or even completely sober but carrying a bottle or two with the intention of drinking while on board — what’s going to prevent that situation from snowballing into disaster?
Yet another lesson that can be gleaned from the FlyNYON situation is the role of communications and transparency in the success of an aviation startup, whether in daily operations or in the aftermath of accidents. These will inevitably occur, and how the company responds can go a long way toward ensuring it can survive a bad period. FlyNYON, on the other hand, immediately began trying to spin public perceptions by attacking media, deleting comments and queries relating to the accident from its social media accounts, and deploying its brand ambassadors to post glowingly on its behalf without identifying themselves as ambassadors of the company. This created a hostile environment that did the company no favors, when an open, honest, transparent, and sympathetic response could have done the precise opposite while still protecting the company’s interests and legal jeopardy. In short, eVTOL companies should be prepared for disaster in a way that FlyNYON wasn’t, and have professionals develop emergency response plans that specifically address public concern in the wake of what will be certainly extremely high-profile incidents and accidents.
Finally, future eVTOL companies should pay close attention — once all the evidence is digested by the National Transportation Safety Board — to FlyNYON’s culture of safety and its operational behavior. There are likely going to be a wide variety of assessments about these that might reflect the company’s reactions to budgetary constraints, i.e., cost-cutting; Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations; and even the challenges of launching something that hasn’t been done before. FlyNYON attempted something unprecedented and quite daring — the offering of exciting doors-off helicopter flights to average tourists — but it did so in a fashion that compromised passenger safety as well as, perhaps, the company’s own longevity. Air taxi developers, who are similarly attempting something unprecedented, will be smart to look at what this company did along the way, and then do the complete opposite.