How customer experience will make or break advanced air mobility

Advanced air mobility (AAM) is loosely defined as short-haul flights that leverage new technologies, aircraft designs, and business models; the flights may range from a few kilometers to up to about 100 kilometers in the urban environment (urban air mobility) or up to 800 kilometers over larger areas (regional air mobility). AAM has been attracting much interest from aviation experts in recent years, with equipment manufacturers and operators pursuing projects related to the transport of both people and goods. This article focuses on the passenger AAM market, especially strategies for overcoming “hassle factors” to improve the customer experience and convince people that AAM is a better option than ground transport for some urban and regional trips.

AAM, and the potential renaissance of regional air travel, would stem from a new generation of sustainable aircraft powered by battery-electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen powertrains and new airframe configurations, such as vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). Some of these new aircraft are expected to be certified in the second half of the 2020s, and they may eventually be capable of augmented or autonomous flight. While the aviation industry has been rightly focused on the technological challenges, customer experience may ultimately determine whether passenger flights via urban and regional air mobility succeed or fail.

Considering travel time alone, AAM is usually much faster than ground transportation. For example, a regional flight in Germany between Munich and Stuttgart (230 kilometers) could take about 45 minutes, compared to 120 minutes by car, or even longer when considering rush-hour traffic. AAM also offers greater travel time predictability because cars are typically subject to more factors that can cause unexpected delays, such as traffic jams caused by accidents and construction. That said, the industry still needs to address several “hassle factors” that favor journeys by car (exhibit).

While advanced air mobility can save customers time, leaders will need to solve several hassle factors that favor journeys by car.

One hassle factor relates to timing, since many early AAM flights are expected to follow a set schedule, versus being on-demand. Trip planning for AAM flights may also be more complex because most passengers will need to arrange ground transport for the first and last mile of their journeys. Reliability is an issue with AAM because airplanes are more complex than cars and thus subject to more maintenance and weather-related cancellations. Finally, AAM in regional and urban settings could be roughly four to five times more expensive than taking a car for a single passenger, and much more when multiple people travel in the car.

For AAM to flourish, operators and other ecosystem players need to address five aspects of the customer experience.

1. Provide customers with enough information to make informed trip decisions. AAM could significantly reduce travel times, but in many cases customers could be limited by a flight schedule and would need other types of transportation, such as rideshares, to get to the airport or vertiport. Although customers can quickly search travel times through a rideshare or map app, they still need to plan to get to the airport or vertiport, complete ground processes, ensure enough time to get to the aircraft, account for potential delays, and connect with last-mile transport when they land. Operators will need to develop experiences that dramatically reduce uncertainty and over-communicate details about each step in the journey. For example, they could provide customers with an end-to-end view of the time savings for their trip, factoring in both the flight and ground transport, to help them decide which mode of transportation is best.

2. Carefully consider trade-offs between demand aggregation and cost. Operators have historically aggregated demand by limiting the number of flight frequencies on a given route and serving few airports within a particular region. This strategy has allowed them to fly larger aircraft, which has reduced unit costs. The lower costs, in turn, have resulted in lower prices and thus increased demand. For AAM, however, operators need to rethink these trade-offs. On short distances, operators must offer enough flights throughout the day that customers do not feel constrained by schedules and opt for ground substitutes instead—and that holds true even if this strategy creates the need for smaller aircraft at higher cost. Similarly, operators must carefully think about the number of airports and vertiports from which they will offer service, given the need to minimize the first and last mile of the trip. They must consider the trade-off between reducing passenger time-to-airport or vertiport and aggregating travel locations. Servicing fewer locations will aggregate demand, allow for economies of scale, and reduce costs, but it will likely reduce overall demand due to increased passenger ground times.

3. Help passengers manage transitions across transport modes. Since AAM flights are short, any glitches or delays could tip the scales in favor of driving. Consider the Munich to Stuttgart example above. If passengers are forced to wait about ten minutes for a rideshare vehicle at both the origin and destination points, their end-to-end time savings fall by 25 percent. If the rideshare vehicle is cancelled or delayed, the time advantage from AAM could disappear. Operators can optimize both travel time and convenience by being thoughtful about transitions to new transport modes and considering who “owns” the customer journey at each stage. Some operators may explore integrating data on flight status into rideshare or map apps to create a seamless end-to-end journey. If they can guarantee the availability of a rideshare vehicle, for example, travelers will not have to build a time buffer into their trips to ensure that they reach their destination in time.

4. Design for how people spend their time, as well as for time savings. Certain customer segments, such as business travelers, may choose the mode of transportation with the fewest disruptions if they need to work or take calls. If AAM operators create a tailored experience for this segment—for instance, by providing reliable Wi-Fi and tray tables for laptops during flights—they may gain an advantage. Operators could build trust and brand loyalty by proactively communicating the status of these services pre-flight and giving customers the chance to choose alternative transportation if they are unexpectedly not available.

5. Consider strategies to reinvent the airport experience. Airports and vertiports will play a major role in AAM customer experience, and they will offer opportunities to reduce end-to-end trip time, create a smooth customer experience, and provide value-added services to customers. For example, AAM operators could consider ways to streamline, or even eliminate, check-in. Passing through security, if required, typically takes ten to 20 minutes and can exceed 23 minutes at some major US airports. Airports and vertiports could reimagine this experience as a simple walk-through process leveraging advanced, automated scanners and risk-assessment tools. AAM operators could also partner with airports and vertiports on new mobile device solutions, allowing customers to order food, beverages, and other items on the way to the airport or vertiport. They would then have those items available for pickup at the gate prior to boarding.

When designing these new experiences, AAM operators and airports or vertiports should consider the needs of different customer profiles. For example, some AAM travelers on longer-distance regional trips may seek more premium, white-glove service, while travelers on shorter-distance commutes may be more focused on gaining time-savings by having minimal interactions with operators.

As operators, infrastructure players, and other ecosystem actors begin launching and scaling commercial AAM operations, they need to examine customer experience and reduce the hassles of flying, or else the market may not emerge and reach its full potential. Operators that are successful in these efforts may become early leaders and win repeat business as AAM gains traction.

Ramya Mahalingam is an associate partner in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, where Robin Riedel is a partner, and Adam Mitchell is an associate partner in the Toronto office.

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