Great Expectations: What’s required for AAM players to become some of the largest airlines in the world

With investments growing and prototypes in development, advanced air mobility (AAM) players have great ambitions. By 2030, they could be similar in size across some dimensions to the largest airlines in the world—according to the announced plans of the major players—with similar complexities. Flights are expected to be much shorter than commercial airline travel today (averaging only about 18 minutes), with fewer passengers (one to six, plus a pilot). Fleet sizes are expected to be bigger than those of a typically commercial airline, and the number of AAM flights could be greater by an order of magnitude—approximately 2,200 per day for the largest airlines versus about 20,000 per day for AAM operators.

Passenger advanced air mobility operators could soon rival the largest airlines in terms of fleet size and flight operations.

That kind of accelerated cadence—with large numbers of aircraft flying frequent, short flights—will create operational challenges. Ground processes, flight planning, and other aspects all increase in direct proportion to the number of takeoffs and landings. Thus far, much of the discussion about AAM has centered on aircraft design, manufacturing, and certification. Yet operations could be a limiting factor to the industry’s growth, and stakeholders must overcome hurdles in the following areas.

  • High-throughput vertiports. To meet aspirations, the industry will need takeoff and landing sites capable of supporting a large volume of takeoffs and landings each day. Existing regional airports and helipads are a start, but AAM operators will likely need to work with the public, city planners, and other stakeholders to build greenfield projects in more accessible locations.
  • Network planning and optimization. Unlike commercial air travel, AAM passengers won’t book months in advance. For that reason, operators need to be far more agile and responsive to short-term changes in demand.
  • Ground operations. Even though the vehicles are smaller than large airliners, they will still require activities such as cleaning, baggage handling, and refueling (or recharging for battery-powered aircraft) between landing and the next departure. Even with increased automation, manual labor will still be required, even at small vertiports.
  • Passenger experience. Because the flights are short, passengers will want to spend far less time in terminals. For that reason, terminals need to support a streamlined passenger journey, including access to additional modes of transit, and efficient security.
  • Maintenance repair and overhaul. Despite being less mechanically complex than conventional fuel powered aircraft, eVTOL will still need both routine and unscheduled maintenance. Operators will have to identify network locations suitable for servicing their fleet—perhaps larger vertiports or existing airport hangers—and may need some level of service at all network nodes.
  • Pilot Training. Attracting and training enough pilots to operate AAM aircraft is also critical, particularly during the early years of operations, when they will be required in the cockpit on every flight. Our modeling suggests that the AAM industry could require about 60,000 pilots by 2028. Longer term, some pilots can advance to remote supervisors capable of overseeing multiple flights from the ground.

Thus far, AAM players have focused primarily on designing and certifying aircraft, but the real question may be this: Can the industry proactively address potential operational issues now to reach its full potential?

Guenter Fuchs is a consultant in McKinsey’s Southern California office; Ryan Mann is an associate partner in the Chicago office, where George Valcarcel is a consultant; and Robin Riedel is a partner in the San Francisco office.

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