The daunting economics of taking an air taxi to work

Why commuting isn't such a great use case for eVTOLs.

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Release Date
January 19, 2022
The daunting economics of taking an air taxi to work
The Jetsons make for an evocative pitch. A sky filled with commuters. The futuristic use case has had no small impact on electric vertical take-off and landing aspirants, with the names of at least two companies in the space inspired by the 1960s-era cartoon. So when it comes to electric air taxis, one narrative is dominant: Someday soon, you could be taking a “flying car” to work.

Although the emerging field of eVTOL aircraft will be capable of a variety of missions, they’ve mostly been pitched as a solution to sitting in traffic — which, of course, is most acute during rush hour. Commuters represent an enormous total addressable market, and the promise of capturing even a piece of that has fueled a frenzy of investment in the sector.

Related: Embraer SPAC deal reflects changed funding landscape for eVTOL developers

Yet this outsize focus on commuting obscures an inconvenient fact, namely, that taking an air taxi to and from work each day won’t make sense for the vast majority of commuters anytime soon, if ever. 

Let’s do the math: $3 per seat mile ($1.88 per seat km). That’s the price Joby Aviation believes is achievable by 2026 with a fleet of 850 aircraft operating in select cities flying 24 miles (around 39 km) on each trip. 2

If you assume that average trip length reflects the one-way distance of a commute that is made twice a day, five days a week, for 50 weeks out of the year, then a single commuter would spend $36,000 annually on a mode of transportation that, unlike a car that can be owned and operated for under $10,000 a year, can’t also get them to the grocery store. That’s clearly out of reach for most households, and a stretch even for more affluent ones.

As the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) sector attracts more money and attention, new research is giving the public an increasingly sophisticated picture of the associated demand potential. A recent study by researchers at Virginia Tech found that at $3 per seat mile, demand for aerial commuting trips in the San Francisco Bay Area would be at most a few thousand round trips per day, or just 0.05% of the 4.6 million total commuting trips in the region.

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