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Regional air mobility revives the pursuit of thin-haul profits

A new generation of electric, hybrid, and hydrogen aircraft developers are hoping to succeed where very light jets did not.

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Release Date
April 4, 2023
Regional air mobility revives the pursuit of thin-haul profits
Twenty years ago, very light jets like the Eclipse 500 promised to revolutionize travel. Eclipse Aviation founder Vern Raburn did not pitch the VLJ as the thing it ultimately became, which is a private jet, only smaller. Instead, its purportedly superior economics — unlocked by new technologies and scaled manufacturing — were supposed to enable innovative commercial business models, like the on-demand jet taxi service pursued by DayJet.

Encouraged by the investment pouring into the sector, NASA launched research into the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), which foresaw capable small aircraft being used for on-demand, point-to-point travel between regional and general aviation airports. “Can you imagine an Arlington e-commerce consultant calling on clients in Charlottesville, Danville, and Norfolk, Virginia in a single business day and returning home for dinner with the family?” NASA wrote in 2001, envisioning a world with eBay and DayJet but not Zoom. SATS, the agency confidently proclaimed, would bring “hub-and-spoke-like accessibility to the smallest of neighborhood airports”.

Related: Electric is the future of regional aviation, just not yet

By the end of 2008, DayJet had gone bust and Eclipse had filed for bankruptcy, concluding a cautionary tale that was invoked by skeptics a decade later, when urban air mobility began attracting the same level of hype. Yet, when it comes to the vision of connecting small local airports, the true successor to SATS is not UAM but RAM, regional air mobility. Today, with decarbonization top of mind, electric, hybrid and hydrogen-powered planes have taken the place of VLJs, but their mission is essentially the same: to leverage under-utilized minor airports to offer convenient, affordable regional connectivity.

Bolstered by a 2021 NASA white paper that champions the concept for a new generation, RAM has started to emerge from under the shadow of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, attracting growing interest from investors and policymakers. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which hosted a RAM Summit in San Francisco in February, projects that the RAM passenger market could be worth around $100 billion by 2035 if everything comes together this time — but acknowledges that’s a big if.

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