Last month bloomberg.com published an optimistic article about Joby Aviation and its CEO, JoeBen Bevirt, who was on a UK scouting mission for future flight routes. Bevirt is quoted: “The UK market is really spectacular. When you come here you can really feel the value of what a service like ours could mean for people being able to get around.”
After combining Britain’s investment in sustainability with a dense concentration of large, crowded cities, it is no surprise Bevirt is excited about the country’s potential for his pioneering S4 electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
While eVTOLs should have a major impact over congested city centres around the world, flight routes outside of such urban conurbations remain a puzzle. The problem being: cost per mile.
According to Joby’s analyst day report from last June, the company estimates that in 2026, the travel price will be USD3 per mile, based on an average flight length of 24 miles at a cruising speed of 165 mph, carrying an average load of 2.3 passengers and with a six-minute turnaround time.
Joby’s CFO, Matt Field, said: “Over time, the cost of a trip per passenger is expected to be on par with an UberX, although we’d expect prices to be closer to Uber Black pricing in the early years of service.”
As to operational costs, the company estimates the following per available seat mile.
: Pilot 22 cents
: Maintenance (including labour) 19 cents
: Vertiport support/landing fees 11 cents
: Battery and charging 13 cents
: Aircraft and insurance 9 cents
: Sundries 12 cents
This adds up to a total cost of 86 cents. Then, after optimistically predicting the aircraft will operate seven days a week, averaging 40 flights per day or 280 a week, Joby estimates a revenue point of USD1.73 per available seat mile.
Field added: “Our vision is to create an aerial ride-sharing service that saves a billion people an hour, but like any new technology, our service will become more affordable as it scales.”
The Bloomberg article highlights the UKs Cambridge to London city centres as an USD3 per mile example. Yet, it cites 40 miles as the distance, when 50 is the accepted span by air. The cost is not USD120 as stated, but USD150. A major difference.
Cambridge to London: 50 miles
Even when you compare the Bloomberg lower price, the train over this distance is by far and away the cheapest form of transport. The cost, on average, is around UKP27.50 compared to the Joby S4 UKP91.
Agreed, the train journey can take up to 1 hour 24 minutes compared with an eVTOL flight of 20 minutes, but unless you are a city stockbroker or high-powered business person, how important is that time saving when the cost is over three times more expensive? Surely, a majority of people visiting London from Cambridge are for the tourist sites, a shopping day out, special event, or seeing family and friends. Only wealthy commuters can regularly afford to hop on a flying taxi.
Some suggest the flight costs mooted by Joby and other eVTOL companies are “pie in the sky” as there are various unknown future variables still to consider.
For example, flyingmag.com, in an article from last October points out that the necessary and extensive vertiport infrastructure networks required may be more expensive to construct than presently proposed, driving passenger prices up; and why employing existing structures like heliports and unused parking deck areas become increasingly important.
So, how does the Joby per mile price compare with its rivals? Quite favourably.
Archer, Vertical Aerospace and Eve, for example, offer potential charges of between USD3 and USD4 with the most expensive being NASA at USD6 to USD11 and the cheapest Lilium at USD2.25.
(Graphic by Meg Scarbrough FLYING)
Therefore, a short distance flight over a city centre remains the industry’s primary market. At USD3 a mile this obliterates all other competition. A two-mile Joby S4 trip over central London, for example, may cost USD6 (UKP4.60) and could take as little as five minutes from entering a vertiport to reaching the destination. No congestion, queueing, waiting, fumes or cacophony of noise… This is ease to please.
Other modes of city travel from the tube and bus, to car and road taxi may now become transport antiquities. For when you can compare or even beat the competition price, while offering a major saving of time and then add to this appealing mixture, simplicity and comfort, you’re on to a winner. Of course, air regulations and concerns over public safety remain the primary hurdles for the industry to overcome.
Yet, flights between cities are another matter, where in many cases “the train takes the strain,” beats the eVTOL every time on price.
So, when Archer, in a region where there is no train service, states a 15-mile Maker flight from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica may cost USD45-50, “similar to an Uber taxi”, enthuses co-founder Adam Goldstein, compare this price to a 47-minute tram ride at around USD5, where bus or car are only a little more expensive.
Once again, will people be happy to regularly pay an additional USD40+ per trip to reach a destination in eight minutes rather than forty? Are longer eVTOL flights simply an elite form of travel for only the wealthy?
Surely, the USD3 price point must fall to that holy grail of USD1 per mile to allow prolonged, out of city trips, become more competitive. Yet, how can eVTOL companies financially achieve this?
One possibility is constructing larger aircraft to carry up to eight passengers and not the present four to make them more economical. Another is the free market.
In the UK, a full-bloodied “head-to-head” business battle between JOBY and its emerging arch-rival Vertical Aerospace could drive the price down. Unfortunately, investors would not be happy, as returns then diminish and profits are squeezed.
There remain important eVTOL issues to be resolved.
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