Is there a world in which your next trip to the grocery store involves a flying car? “Advanced air mobility is the next revolution in aerospace,” says Robin Riedel, a McKinsey partner and certified commercial airline pilot. “But it’s not going to be like you see in the movies.”
Advanced air mobility refers to an emerging industry comprising around 250 companies that are seeking to build electric flying vehicles—think cleaner, quieter, helicopters—as well as the infrastructure to use them in cities around the world.
We recently caught up with Robin and McKinsey partner Shivika Sahdev, both of whom are helping lead our work in this field, to hear more about how we’re partnering with clients on this topic, what to expect in the coming years, and whether or not a sci-fi future is on our horizon.
Flying cars have always seemed to be something just over the horizon—why are we suddenly making so much progress right now?
Robin: There’s been a convergence of several trends in recent years. First, on-demand services have changed the way we think about mobility. Second, there’s a focus on sustainability, which these vehicles support. Third, there’s a lot of funding available—investors who want to be a part of the next big thing. And lastly, the technology is finally there to do this at scale.
Shivika: Totally agreed, but the fundamental one for me is really battery technology. We are finally reaching the density and affordability of batteries where the physics and economics of powering one of these vehicles starts making sense.
Talk to us about the sustainability aspect involved.
Shivika: Transportation is a huge part of our carbon footprint. Unless we do something about the entire transport network, we’re not going to solve climate change. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm around electrifying the way we move around. These vehicles are a lot more sustainable an option than, for example, the helicopters they could replace.
Robin: The sustainability piece isn’t that these are going to replace all cars, or even a significant amount of public transportation. It will almost always be more sustainable to take an electric bus or train; those modes of transport carry more people per trip. But for certain kinds of trips, advanced air mobility vehicles can really help cut down on emissions.
What kinds of trips do you think will be common before the end of this decade?
Robin: There will likely be use cases within cities: flying from downtown London to Heathrow airport, or from Manhattan to J.F.K. But it might be harder to replace taxis or other public transport to go a handful of blocks uptown or downtown. Not soon, at least.
Shivika: Regional trips might be another one, going from one city to the next. A business traveler going from New York City to Washington, D.C. could pay a premium for taking one of these vehicles instead of the train or a plane. A lot depends on the purpose of the trip.
Robin: Initially, it will be a relatively expensive way to get around. Think about a helicopter service; it might make sense for a business traveler who needs to get somewhere quickly. But for the average consumer, it won’t.
Accessibility is an important aspect of this to solve. It can’t just be for business travelers going to the airport.
Describe what the passenger experience will look like.
Robin: Somewhere in between today’s ride-hailing and airline travel. For some operators, customers will have the aircraft to themselves while for others, they might share the ride with others.
The vehicles will be relatively small compared to today’s airlines with one to seven passenger seats, depending on the manufacturer. The inside will feel similar to cars—think comfortable seats and seat belts, climate conditioning, and windows to observe the scenery.
Most operators plan to have pilots operate the aircraft in the initial years. Given the relatively short flights, the aircraft won’t have galleys, flight attendants or washrooms. To board the aircraft, travelers will use dedicated vertiports, which may be on top of higher buildings and require an elevator to get to or ground level like a large parking lot.
What are some challenges that stand between the present and widespread use?
Shivika: Infrastructure is a big one. The initial use cases will have to take advantage of existing infrastructure, such as helipads and airports—that’s why airport transfers will likely be one of the first real use cases. You also need electrical infrastructure, as these machines will need a lot of energy at really high power levels. Obviously, that electricity will need to come from renewable sources if this is going to be sustainable.
Robin: There are still a lot of challenges to overcome. A ton of skilled labor will ultimately be required to bring this vision to life. But the two biggest challenges in my mind are public acceptance and getting the right regulatory systems in place. And those two things are related.
Can you elaborate on that connection?
Robin: Advanced air mobility is a lot cleaner and quieter than helicopters, but they still make noise. People worry about that. They also worry, of course, about safety. Accidents might be much rarer than with automobiles, but they will garner more attention. Getting the right public inputs, and the right regulation in place, will help ensure that the technology has public confidence and buy-in.
Shivika: I see four big buckets of things regulators can consider. The primary one is safety. Then, on the technical side, regulators need to physically certify the aircraft itself. Examine every part, test them under different scenarios, and so on. Next is training for pilots—there will need to be certification there. And finally, there’s general operations; air travel has well-defined procedures for communications, connectivity, takeoff and landing, and setting routes. There will need to be some version of that for these vehicles.
I also just want to emphasize the community piece, as Robin mentioned. Regulators will need to make sure communities are involved in the decision-making and have their perspectives considered.
How are we working with clients on all of these issues?
Robin: We serve in a number of related spaces: aerospace and automotive incumbents, regulators, infrastructure players, startups, investors, supply chain, and more.
One big area is helping clients better understand the market size, market evolution, and timing. How big is the market, and how big can the market get? If it’s going to be a $500 billion market, by when? A lot of people want to know and adjust their business strategies accordingly. We’re working together with clients to design their organizations for growth, building digital platforms to manage aerial mobility, and setting up a complex supply chain and manufacturing process.
Shivika: Along with that, you want to understand the different opportunities along the value chain and in the associated business models. Essentially, if this is going to be a big market, where should stakeholders be looking to add value?
Robin: A final thing I want to mention is that we’re looking at this emerging field through a lens we call “holistic impact,” which is how McKinsey defines and measures the broader impact of our work across stakeholder groups. We’re asking ourselves, how are we not only finding value but also improving things for employees, communities, and the environment?
Most optimistically, where do you see advanced air mobility 10 years from now? Is there any sci-fi potential here, or is it going to be small steps for the time being?
Shivika: In 10 years, my most optimistic guess is that you’ll have hundreds of these flying in a given big city. But I don’t think it’s going to be a reasonable alternative to buses, cars, or rail in that time period. For regional travel and airport transfers, though, definitely.
Robin: Agreed. Boston to New York, Berlin to Hamburg, or Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Similar short-haul regional travel in other countries around the world—situations where you could save three or four hours—advanced air mobility might be a considered option. Again, I do think it will be primarily for business travelers and high-net-worth individuals in the beginning. But we hope to eventually help clients figure out how to scale to serve a much broader customer base.