Monday Insight: March 27, 2023

United Air Taxi Announcement
A Huge Potential.
But Lots Of Challenges To Get Handled.

The great news is United’s plan to implement eVTOL service from downtown Chicago to O’Hare and between Manhattan and Newark Liberty International starting in just about two years.

The impact of this is not just the concept of making downtown Chicago and New York more attractive as commercial and business locations – a huge point that seems to not be fully appreciated – this now means that the operational questions regarding this modality will finally be fully vetted.

Point: there are issues that need to be tackled before 2025, when United’s consumers will find getting to and from a major airport more like getting on an elevator than being stuck in traffic inside a dingy taxicab.

Hard Questions. Issues that go beyond the flashy news stories that don’t go a centimeter below the surface of the entire eVTOL concept. The clearest ones – albeit not necessarily the easiest to address – are the raw facility issues.

On the metro side, the access and egress to the vertiports will need to be carefully developed. At the ORD and EWR end, the flow of these machines and their passengers are an issue. If the eVTOL terminal facilities are out on some distant hardstand, the time saved getting from mid-town could be eaten up by the hassle to get to and from the main terminal.

But this acceleration of the time line to start service has a more important impact: Clarifying the open questions about the supply chain of motive power – i.e., batteries.

Issue One: As of today, the process of obtaining lithium-ion batteries is completely unacceptable and uncertain.

Issue Two: From social and environmental perspectives, the eVTOL concept is not ready for prime time. The mining of lithium and particularly cobalt is today a system that is dependent far too much on latter-day slave labor.

It seems to be verboten to ask about the alternatives to China-owned mines in Africa, where working conditions would make Sinclair Lewis blush. (Google it, if you must,) But that needs to be addressed in the next 24 months, based on the United timeline.

Issue Three: The issue of battery production. It’s now concentrated in China where an unelected CCP that is America’s enemy controls the flow. Can new supply chains be developed in the next two years?

Then we have the issue of emergency services. The CFR systems now in place have limited ability to address accidents that may occur with battery-powered aircraft.

There have been a number of videos at Aviation Unscripted over the past two years, calling attention to these and other dynamics involving the eVTOL programs.

Beyond sunshine stories, there has been zero – and we mean zero – substantive reporting on these issues.

The good news is that United’s leadership in this new modality will likely get these addressed ASAP.