Air Taxis and Vertiports – A Growing Trend In 2023

Regulations on air taxis in most countries are yet to attain fruition.

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

If transportation technology was moving along as fast as microprocessor technology, then the day after tomorrow I would be able to get in a taxi cab and be in Tokyo in 30 seconds ~ W. Daniel Hillis

Known as flying cars by some, air taxis (or flying taxis)   are technically known as EVTOL (electric, vertical take off and landing) aircraft.  In other words, they are drones propelled by multirotor  equipment and are usually designed to carry less than a dozen passengers (there are two seater air taxis in the design phase in China and Germany)..  Air taxis are calculated to ease traffic congestion on the roads making it easy for commuters to get from one place to another without being bogged down in traffic. A good example where air taxis could be beneficial is in the context of a rush to the airport to catch a flight or a dash to the railway station to make it to a train which is few and far between during the day.   Air taxis take off and land vertically, obviating the need for runways needed by conventional aircraft, and land in vertiports – described as “half airports, half subway stations”.

Frisco, Texas is the home of Uber’s first test site for its eVTOL aircraft. [ Image Credit:]

EVTOLs other uses are in search and rescue operations, transporting organs for transplant, as well as delivery and tourism. It is estimated that in the coming decades there could be  hundreds or even thousands of EVTOLs in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States .

The Economist’s annual journal The World Ahead 2023 says: “air travel turns profitable as international arrivals  soar by 30%. But they stay below pre-pandemic levels”. At present only up to one third of air travel pre 2019 can be seen, but the demand for travel is growing. The International Air Transport Association’s (IATA)  – the trade association of airlines – has forecast that there will be a return to pre pandemic levels for global airlines by around end-2023, calling it “about the right timeframe”. The use of air taxis would largely be domestic, particularly in large countries such as the United States, Canada, China and India which have large domestic markets.  The exponential increase in international air travel would in turn mean that air taxis would be a popular and efficient mode of transport in the context of domestic connections.

The Economist goes on to say: “This will be a crucial year for the aviation pioneers developing electric vertical take off and landing (EVTOL) aircraft …several firms are hoping to obtain the necessary certification in 2023 to commence commercial production, paving the way for the fast passenger services”.

Prior to starting to manufacture these aircraft, manufacturers and regulators would have to agree on safety standards and the latter would have to issue a license for the aircraft before passengers can be carried.  BBC Science Focus reports: “Many developers believe their vehicles will be safety certified and cleared for take off by 2025, if not sooner. Boeing, Airbus and Hyundai are some of the familiar names building air taxis. Another is Joby, which bought Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing giant’s foray into eVTOLs, in December 2020. Meanwhile, British firm Vertical claims to have the highest number of conditional pre-orders with the likes of Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines among the investors lining up for its VA-X4 vehicle”. The Report goes on to say that sprawling and congested cities such as  Los Angeles i São Paulo, Osaka and Singapore are some of the cities preparing for the advent of advanced air mobility offered by air taxis. In Europe the continent’s first vertiport  is being built in France in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics,  with the United Kingdom following close. 

Regulations on air taxis in most countries are yet to attain fruition. However, air taxis could arguably be considered analogous to any aircraft big or small, and therefore regulators could well be influenced by current international regulations applying to the manufacture of commercial aircraft. Annex 8 to The Chicago Convention which addresses issues of airworthiness of aircraft provides that the State of manufacture is required to ensure that each aircraft, including parts manufactured by sub-contractors, conforms to the approved design, and that the State taking responsibility for the production of parts manufactured under the design approval has to ensure that the parts conform to the approved design.

The Annex begins with an obligatory provision on the State of design of an aircraft by saying that it is required to transmit to every Contracting State which has advised the State of Design that it has entered the aircraft on its register, and to any other Contracting State upon request, any generally applicable information which it has found necessary for the continuing airworthiness of the aircraft, including its engines and propellers when applicable, and for the safe operation of the aircraft, and notification of the suspension or revocation of a Type Certificate. For its part, the State of Registry has to ensure that, when it first enters on its register an aircraft of a particular type for which it is not the State of Design and issues or validates a Certificate of Airworthiness it is required to advise the State of Design that it has entered such an aircraft on its register.

The State of Design has to ensure that, where the State of Manufacture of an aircraft is other than the State of Design, there is an agreement acceptable to both States to ensure that the manufacturing organization cooperates with the organization responsible for the type design in assessing information received on experience with operating the aircraft. The State of Manufacture of an aircraft is obligated to ensure that, where it is not the State of Design, there is an agreement acceptable to both States to ensure that the manufacturing organization cooperates with the organization responsible for the type design in assessing information received on experience with operating the aircraft.

There is also a requirement (not specifically aimed at manufacturers) that compliance with the Standards prescribed as above is required to be established by flight. Chapter 4 of the Annex stipulates that the functioning of all moving parts essential to the safe operation of the aeroplane is required to be demonstrated by suitable tests in order to ensure that they will function correctly under all operating conditions for such parts.  Initially air taxis will have crew piloting the aircraft. Annex 8  contains a requirement that the aircraft be provided with approved instruments and equipment necessary for the safe operation of the aeroplane in the anticipated operating conditions. These include the instruments and equipment necessary to enable the crew to operate the aeroplane within its operating limitations.  The underlying principle is that the aircraft is required to have such stability in relation to its flight characteristics, performance, structural strength, and most probable operating conditions (e.g. aeroplane configurations and speed ranges) so as to ensure that demands made on the pilot’s powers of concentration are not excessive when the stage of the flight at which these demands occur and their duration are taken into account.

Certification of airworthiness of an air taxi is a serious business and internal regulations of a country must consider analogous standards already established by member States of the International Civil Aviation Organization.