The present trials at Cergy-Pontoise Airport, leading up to the Paris Olympic Games in July, 2024 are imperative for the future success of the eVTOL industry. Over 4 billion people worldwide may watch the Games on TV, not forgetting the 10 million spectators attending. It is likely they will see air taxis flying over the French capital. Therefore, the correct preparation for this momentous occasion is essential.

Philip Butterworth-Hayes who has been involved for over 35 years in the aviation industry, offers a media perspective on this potential reality. He is the editor and publisher of www.unmannedairspace.info and www.urbanairmobilitynews.com and edits EUROCONTROL’s Skyway magazine.

His background includes posts as the director of communications and strategy at the Civil Aviation Navigation Organization (CANSO) in Amsterdam; the launch editor of the European Defence Agency’s European Defence Matters; the Manager of Jane’s Air Transport Division and lead consultant for Jane’s Information Group on civil aviation consultancy studies; founding editor of Jane’s Aircraft Component Manufacturers, Jane’s World Airlines and Jane’s Airport Review; a former editor of Interavia Aerospace Review, Airports International, Jane’s Defence Industries, Jane’s Military Aircraft and several unmanned air system publications. Also, he has been an aviation consultant for BBC Television and Time-Life books.


Chris Stonor Asks The Questions

Air taxis will be flying athletes and spectators to and from different sports stadia during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. How realistic is this?

This is very ambitious and probably one year ahead of what both the industry and the regulators would accept as a realistic comfort level. But it is certainly possible.

So, the Expo 2025 in Osaka, Japan is more realistic?

Yes, but it doesn’t mean air taxis can’t or won’t fly over Paris the previous year. In terms of all the planets aligning, 2025 is more realistic.

Given the eVTOL industry has come such a long way in just the previous two years, won’t it work itself to the bone to make sure it does happen?

It is certainly possible and marginally probable, but in aviation terms, it normally takes 7 years for a regulation to transfer from a draft to the statute books. So, what needs to be done here, is to accelerate the traditional regulatory processes by over 100 percent. People have not fully understood the challenges that lie ahead. 

What are the most important of these to overcome?

First, and most importantly, to understand the risks involved. Do we fully comprehend the risk profile of urban air mobility (UAM)? There are lots of dangers out there which, so far, have not been planned for because we don’t have the operational experience yet.

For example, a rogue drone interfering with an eVTOL flight. Has this been taken into account? What is the UAS countermeasure policy to make sure the Paris airspace is fully secure? That represents just one of a whole raft, for the question to ask is: “What are the unknowns?” Until we start operating we won’t know.

Other examples include: What happens if someone boards an eVTOL and then goes bonkers? Or what is the correct placement of emergency landing sites? We won’t know until such events occur, as there is no data to base a risk assessment on, as the industry doesn’t exist, yet.

“Volocopter, definitely,” will be Primary eVTOL Flying over Paris (Pic: Volocopter)

Therefore, is this not an extraordinary gamble the eVTOL industry is taking when over half the world’s population will be tuning in with a further 10 million attending. It is like poker when you go all-in.

This is certainly true and why safety is absolutely paramount to prevent a crash, for example. Although, I am not so worried about this possibility, but more concerned over the software not working. 

When you look at aviation, nowadays, not too many people boarding an aeroplane are immediately worried about it crashing. They are more concerned about the air traffic control or airline IT system failing, where the plane can’t take off. Therefore, it is these issues which need to be focussed on. That an eVTOL can’t fly because the communication system fails.

So, it is the technology surrounding such systems?

Yes, that for me is the biggest risk. Paris is an experiment. Important lessons will be gained and everything learned there then becomes mainstream leading to proper commercial flights a few years later. For the first step is relatively simple. Few eVTOLs are flying, so there’ll be straight-forward flight corridors created. It is the scaling-up that becomes the real challenge. 

eVTOLs will Use River Seine as a Flight Path (Pic: Matthieu Colin)

You have been involved for over 35 years in the aviation industry. Has there been anything quite like this when a new technology’s been so rapidly pushed through?

In the past, new regulations and an ecosystem had to be created for supersonic flight to support the technologies involved. Then in 2008, there was the personal jet revolution. But given the sheer amount of eVTOL preparation required due to the brief timescale, the aviation industry has seen nothing like it before. This situation is unique. And why there is so much concentration on air worthiness and operations. Yet, there must be a balance with the overall ecosystem. We are certainly nowhere near that yet.

How important is the state of the economy for a new technology like this to emerge. There are many who now believe we are heading towards a world economic recession. Surely, having a healthy economy greatly assists a new industry to evolve?

I would argue the state of the economy is entirely irrelevant, where a recession will have no detrimental effect. For many countries UAM is now a strategic political industry. If you look at the primary forces behind it, they are the most powerful on Earth. Whether it is the Chinese Government; the U.S Department of Defence; Silicon Valley or even Europe, UAM has become a strategic priority. We are at the point of no return, where many billions of dollars have been already invested, when still no eVTOLs are fully certified or some have not even been built. The necessary money needed will be found.

Are you suggesting what’s financially driving the industry is more the military side than the commercial?

I would suggest it is a race for strategic supremacy.

Who is winning this race? 

The Chinese, hands down. They are already flying commercial autonomous sight-seeing flights. You can buy tickets online. 

You are referring to EHang?  

Absolutely. The Chinese are way ahead of everyone else and winning the global race, although this only works in China. For can you import EHang technology to the States or Europe? No, you can’t. Not yet, anyway. 

During my interview with Skyports, Damian Kysley, he is 100 percent confident there’ll be flying taxi demonstrations over the Paris skies. Which eVTOL companies, in your view, will be involved?

Volocopter, definitely, will be the main one as the company is European-based. I am not sure about Joby, although they are an obvious contender. 

What is required to make the eVTOL demonstrations over Paris successful?

The trials at Cergy-Pontoise Airport are the absolute key. The French have really got this right. A timeline has been set out. What needs to be done; what challenges must be overcome. The primary criteria being: Can we fly safely over Paris; can we design a route; and can we meet all the certification requirements? Once the French put their mind to things, anything is possible. 

Trials at Cergy-Pontoise Airport “Are the Absolute Key” (Pic: Skyports/Sita)

There will be a need for vertiports alongside eVTOL flight paths. Where should they be located and how long could these routes be?

The vertiports need to be located close to Olympic sites as well as in the Paris city centre. The present heliports can be adapted and flight paths created around the established low flying helicopter routes. The procedures are already in place. You adapt as much as you can. You then trial, test and trial again. 

Ideally, you choose a heliport or construct a vertiport close to the River Seine and fly over this for as long as you can. You want as little of the route as possible over people and buildings. 

How do you think the public will react to seeing eVTOLs flying in the Paris skies?

A majority of the public polls are overwhelmingly positive. The industry ticks all the boxes. For example, it is environmentally responsible; safety, weirdly, is not so much a problem, given all the work carried out by previous aviation safety agencies. The public believe that if a craft is flying it has to be safe. What they don’t want to see is a new mode of transport only used by wealthy people. For this to work, eVTOLs must be accessible, affordable and inclusive to all. If achieved the industry will attract widespread popular support.

What about upsetting the economy. If eVTOLs do carry out commercial flights during the Olympics, there are the Paris taxi drivers to consider. They won’t be happy.

Unlike other people, I don’t believe eVTOLs will become a global form of transportation. Certainly, not in the next 20 to 30 years. I can’t see eVTOLs physically taking cars off the road. 

I am surprised you say this. Looking at the Joby financials for passenger cost per mile, the company is saying USD3 a mile; cheaper than road taxis and over a city centre less expensive than most other forms of transport.

The issue is airspace capacity. For example, you can’t have holding patterns in the sky over an urban environment. You are limited to the number of take-offs and landings. And because an eVTOL can’t keep circling until a craft takes off below, that severely limits the flight capacity.

Are you suggesting it can only be a mode of transport for the elites?

If it is, the industry will not succeed. To repeat, eVTOLs won’t reduce congestion on the roads as there simply won’t be enough daily flights.

It is more likely, people may use their own personal eVTOLs. That could make a difference. We will eventually see air taxis growing in size at the same time as personal transports becoming available which will not require public vertiports. The key challenge will be airspace capacity. You cannot hover over an area. I appreciate this may be a controversial viewpoint.

It is 2030, the industry is beginning to take-off, how many eVTOLs can you see flying over London on a daily basis, for example?

Not many, but come 2035, we may see air taxis flying people out to Heathrow Airport, or taking them to particular events. Perhaps, by then, we could see hundreds of flights a day. 

“Present Paris Heliports can be Adapted to Vertiports” (Pic:123RF)

One view is there will be a strong link between airports and eVTOLs. People will depart from an aeroplane, then walk a short distance to a vertiport, before an eVTOL flies them to a local destination. 

Again, only via certain designated routes. These will be risk assessment ones. You can’t fly the craft over people day and night. There will be clear and concise limits. 

Going back to Paris where, at least, there’ll be eVTOL demonstrations. What will the industry gain from this?

Other cities around the world will look at Paris and say, “We want this!” 

So they seek the kudos?

Exactly. It is the local politicians who decide on how their smart cities may develop in the future and for many, urban air mobility plays an important role. This is a political decision, not a public one. It is these politicians who will make or break the industry.

What else would you like to add to our conversation?

It is the stuff that people have not thought about like the IT systems breaking down, not the craft falling out of the sky. You plan for the best, but out of the blue something extraordinary happens which you can’t risk assess. It is how you manage these unplanned events, whether it is terrorist-based or an electrical outage, that will decide whether Paris is a success or not. 

Finally, if there are eVTOL flights arranged for the media, would you put your name down?

Absolutely. I would jump at the chance.