VFS Convenes AAM Leadership Discussion
By Robert T. Hastings
Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2023
The annals of human achievement are punctuated by transformative breakthroughs that redefine the boundaries of what we once deemed possible. A little more than a century ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright etched their names into history’s ledger with the first controlled, powered flight, a moment that unleashed a cascade of innovation reshaping our world. Fast-forward to the present, and we find ourselves standing on the precipice of yet another aviation revolution: the advent of electric flight.
In 1903, The Wright Brothers’ aircraft forever changed the course of humanity, creating not only a new form of transportation but unleashing an economic engine that would eventually create untold billions in annual economic impact and millions of jobs. In much the same manner, today’s advancements in electric aviation are poised to redefine our skies, ushering in an era of sustainable, efficient and interconnected air mobility accompanied by incredible economic and social opportunities.
This new era of aviation was on full display at the recent US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Summit (see “FAA Holds First AAM Summit,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2023), as hundreds of leaders from across the aviation ecosystem gathered to help successfully launch this new field of electric aviation.
One of the most exciting conversations happened at the Vertical Flight Society’s AAM leadership dinner held in conjunction with the Summit. Executive Director Angelo Collins and Director of Strategy Mike Hirschberg pulled together more than a dozen industry luminaries for a broad and spirited discussion about safety, certification, regulations and policies, infrastructure and a host of viewpoints about the potential of aircraft electrification, and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft specifically.
The assembled group included leaders from aircraft manufacturers, infrastructure providers, investors, association leaders, community and urban planners, and news media. Here’s where they largely found alignment:
There was universal agreement that safety needs to remain the north star for AAM, just as it is for today’s aviation industry. These new aircraft need to meet the existing and highly exacting certification standards that have made aviation the world’s safest mode of transportation. Both industry and the regulatory agencies need to work together to ensure the public has confidence in the safety of these new aircraft.
The new electric aircraft in development can be successfully launched into service shortly with regulations and policies that exist or are now being finalized. As business cases develop and operations begin to scale up, regulations can be updated. But the FAA shouldn’t burden this startup industry with too many new requirements, regulations and policies too early. Give AAM a chance to start with small-scale operations before leveeing restrictions on operations intended for airline-scale passenger transportation.
Full autonomy will come and is necessary to unleash the full-up potential of AAM. But for now, most agreed that we still need pilots in the cockpit, but even with a pilot, eVTOL can, in fact, deliver a profitable business case.
AAM will likely develop first where it is most commercially viable: passenger and cargo delivery across dense urban locations. But by opening the aperture, other use cases — such as organ transport, disaster relief, defense and wildfire fighting — come into focus. And opportunities for regional air mobility to connect thousands of underserved communities across the country are also exciting.
The potential of this new technology can’t be realized without the supporting infrastructure. The investment to support AAM operations is behind where it should be, but industry and regulators alike are finally starting to give it the attention it needs. Where practical, existing infrastructure — i.e., airports and heliports — need to be leveraged. (Note: VFS is holding its 7th Workshop on Infrastructure for AAM in September: www.vtol.org/inf-2023.)
There’s no reason to be overly concerned about the electric grid. In most cases the present-day grid will support initial AAM operations. Where additional power is required, the utility providers will most certainly invest to meet the need; utilities invest where there is clear, steady growth in demand.
Bottom line: Electrification of aviation is poised to redefine the very essence of aviation, echoing the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers, and transforming aviation the same way rotors and jet engines did for earlier generations. The electrical propulsion systems and aircraft designs we are witnessing today will only get better, and the use cases will continue to expand. As these new aircraft go into production, the industry will create tens of thousands of new jobs and provide new economic opportunities for communities across the country and around the world.
This is the most exciting time in aviation in decades and vertical takeoff and landing is at the heart of it. Continued collaboration among all the aviation stakeholders to include the traveling and impacted public — along with a good dose of common-sense policy and regulation — are key to unlocking AAM’s potential and shaping the future of air mobility.
About the Author
Robert Hastings is a veteran public affairs, communications and marketing executive. He is a C-Suite advisor and Principal of Robert Hastings & Associates, a leadership, strategy and communications consultancy focused on the aerospace, defense and mobility sectors. Hastings was most recently Chief Marketing & Communications Officer for Bell Textron, Inc., spearheading Bell’s Future Vertical Lift marketing campaign and its Nexus air taxi public advocacy efforts. Previously, Hastings served in the George W. Bush Administration as Principal Deputy and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. A decorated combat helicopter pilot, Hastings is a retired Brigadier General from the Texas Military Department.