Regional air mobility could save Santa Monica Airport and many like it


Credit: City of Santa Monica

The scaling of the regional air mobility sector could halt the closure of airports like Santa Monica by 2028, according to Kevin Antcliff. 

The Xwing Product Lead is not alone in his mission and believes autonomous and electric regional flight is “incredibly feasible” by 2028, especially for fixed-wings. Why such a date? This week the city voted to close Santa Monica Airport. However, according to the FAA, it made it an agreement with City of Santa Monica officials back in 2017 to ensure operations are maintained until the end of 2028.The agreement also stipulated that the runway be shortened from 4,973ft to its current 3,500ft.

Firstly, Antcliff clarifies what he means by autonomy. “There will always be a human involved in the operations, it is merely a question of to what degree they’ll be involved. The true impactful opportunity is removing the pilot from the physical cockpit and allowing the aircraft to operate in different areas or even different time zones while still allowing the remote pilot in command (RPIC) to return home each night.”

Though the regulatory timeline is hard to predict, Antcliff said the FAA has been an incredible partner in working closely with Xwing in expediting the certification of its autonomous aircraft.

He thinks the main constraint is whether the sector is able to show tangible benefits to the surrounding community in that timeline. “Electric aircraft will provide operations that are very community friendly (low noise, no operating emissions), but the key to their widespread adoption will be autonomous operations that enable low-cost flights that the majority of the surrounding community can gain benefit from and not just the select few,” he said.

Although rolling out piloted, zero emissions aircraft will “undoubtedly be beneficial” as a stop-gap, he said. Antcliff believes in autonomy. “A commonly quoted phrase is that ‘sometimes the hardest things in life are the things most worth doing.’ This is very much the case for autonomous aircraft. Even though we are working hard to ensure safety of flight when operating from the ground, autonomy is the true unlock for these new air transportation systems. By untethering the pilot from the physical aircraft, complete routing flexibility is unleashed providing the ability to reposition the aircraft based on real-time demand.”

Additionally, removing the pilot means opening up a seat for an additional paying customer, which is a large percentage of the total payload when looking small aircraft.

Xwing is converting a Cessna Grand Caravan 208B to be uncrewed with what it calls its Superpilot technology stack. With an unchanged takeoff roll from the original model, Xwing’s Caravan could take off in 1,625ft in the worst conditions — max gross weight, hot day at 40℃/104℉. Less than half of Santa Monica’s shortened runway and suitable for around 500 regional airports across the US.

Last week, Porsche Consulting published research stating that regional aviation, from both the operator and manufacturer sides, is staging a comeback thanks to new technologies. It said advancements in areas such as battery-electric powered motors and AI-based flight planning could reverse the trend which has seen many regional aviation carriers cease operations in the last decade. 

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