Palm Beach County has taken a step into a future that would bring an all-electric mode of air travel to its main airport.
Spain-based transportation infrastructure company Ferrovial will lease five acres on Palm Beach International Airport’s property to build two vertiports for a fleet of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, known as eVTOLs. These air taxis could connect passengers in West Palm Beach to Miami in 20 minutes, or to Tampa in one hour.
The Lilium Jet, as proposed by the German Lilium aerospace company partnering with Ferrovial, uses 36 all-electric engines, or ducted fans, that propel the aircraft forward as well as up and down, much like how a helicopter moves. The company also boasts a 155-mile range on a single charge.
“This is an emerging technology. There’s a lot of risk involved here and I do hope it succeeds,” said County Mayor Dave Kerner, who is a pilot.
When would the electric air taxis begin operation at PBIA?
The aircraft has yet to receive certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, one of many conditions of the PBIA lease. In the “best case scenario,” the earliest that operations could start is 2023, county airports director Laura Beebe said. The process could take as long as 2029, as the lease stipulates this deadline for certain government approvals.
The vertiports will be built on the northeast corner of the airport's property, a site that doesn't have airfield access and hasn’t been occupied in the last decade. It is mostly used for rental car overflow, County Airports Director Laura Beebe said. Ferrovial must invest at least $7 million to build the facilities.
The company partnered with Lilium, to create a network of vertiports in Florida. The city of Orlando approved the first vertiport in this network, expected to be built by 2025, and recently partnered with NASA to research and plan for the air taxis' arrival, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
While the city agreed to give Lilium nearly $1 million in tax incentives, Palm Beach County commissioners did not offer any incentives for either company. Other potential vertiport locations include Tampa, Miami, Fort Myers and Melbourne.
“We’re at the beginning of the marathon, not the end. This is a very long process,” Beebe said.
If the Lilium Jet can’t be certified for whatever reason, Beebe said the airport could choose to seek out other eVTOL companies to fill the spot. Major airliners are getting in on the action, too. United Airlines preordered eVTOLs from Archer Aviation in California and American Airlines has invested in U.K.-based Vertical Aerospace.
Are electric air taxis the future of short-distance travel?
Some aviation experts view eVTOLs as the future of short-distance travel.
"They'll become an important part of air transportation in the United States over the next decade," said Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association. "They should really do a great job for connecting routes that aren't viable for airlines on larger aircraft."
While Lilium and other air taxi startups say they’ll be ready to hit the ground running by at least 2024, aviation experts say the FAA certification process will likely take longer.
“The public wants to have (the FAA) make sure these aircraft are safe,” said Richard “Pat” Anderson, director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “We’re going to have a lot of testing.”
A few factors need to be considered for the long-term success of this industry, su h as technology and consumer interest.
Looking at the journey that electric cars took to become commonplace — from General Motors’ EV1, the first mass-produced electric car in the late 1990s, to today’s Teslas — electric aircraft may go on a similar trajectory, with hybrid systems as the effective intermediary, Anderson said.
“Airplanes require amounts of energy that are really not comprehensible by people who are driving cars,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be a very long time before batteries are close to liquid fuel.”
The cost of batteries was a major factor for electric cars, but the weight is the biggest factor for electric aircraft, he said. The weight of the battery, plus the passenger load, wind and battery life all play a major role in an electric aircraft's range.
“We have to invent stuff that hasn’t been invented,” Anderson said.
Time will tell whether eVTOLs will captivate travelers, but "history has the propensity of repeating itself," Leader said.
How much would a trip cost from West Palm to Miami?
The buzz around eVTOLs reminded him of DayJet, the air taxi company based out of Boca Raton that filed for bankruptcy in 2008, two years after receiving $2 million in job-creation incentives from the state. The company struggled to get revenue and investments as the worldwide economic crisis took hold.
Leader thinks there are enough “high-dollar travelers” who don’t want the hassle of airport security or may want to use eVTOLs as a way to avoid rush-hour traffic between Miami and West Palm Beach.
Daniel Pinan, who heads Ferrovial's corporate development in North America, told commissioners in March that the company hopes to charge passengers $1 per mile, which would be less than $100 to Miami. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, budget airlines with tickets that cost less than $100 are, for now, more friendly on the wallet, Leader said.
Like any other new technology, it will take a mindset shift, Leader said.
“(Travelers are) kind of accustomed to looking at airports or driving. The biggest game changer that will be required is customers will really have to think they can go from anywhere to anywhere at a reasonable price point,” he said. “That’s what eVTOLs could enable.”
Comment below & let us know your thoughts on the new air taxi project!