How can new aircraft firms convince the public?
Those of us who live and work in advanced air mobility are at risk of finding ourselves in an echo chamber. If you head down to your local pub, stop in with friends or get into a brief exchange with a shopkeeper it is pretty much a guarantee they won’t have heard of an eVTOL.
There is a slim chance they know the term air taxi or at least have a rough idea given it does what it says on the tin. But that doesn’t say much for a new sector of aviation promising to take to the skies above some of our major cities by mid-decade.
“It is all about the impact we don’t want to have,” Oliver Walker-Jones, Joby’s head of Marketing, tells us. Fresh off a first ever demo above New York, and with little over two years until Joby wants to begin commercial operations above the city, it feels like “nearing the end of a years-long sprint,” he says.
It is true. Pioneering a new aircraft type is similar to running the steeplechase. It is not a clear sprint and there are obstacles that you might need to contend with more than once. As ideas have become reality and now reality is being certified, attention can turn to building public confidence.
“We think about this a lot day-to-day, how we can make sure that your friends in the pub eventually do know what it is,” says Walker-Jones. “But I think you have to go in a stepwise fashion, you have to get the order correct in which you focus your efforts. We can’t communicate to everybody all at once today, because we don’t have the resources and we probably don’t have the answers to all of the questions they have.”
There is a lot to be said for transparency. People want to know how comfortable the seats are, how to book it and where they can take a flight from. “We are a still a way off from being able to offer them the answers to all of their questions,” says Walker-Jones.
Following Joby’s blueprint – which is a pattern found similarly across most of the listed OEMs – the first port of call was to go out to investors, potential employees, the regulator and build credibility. Then as the reality of the technology has been proved through demonstration flights and acoustic testing, Joby, evidence in hand, has found itself in a position to go out and start talking to communities where it intends to operate.
“That is the phase we are in now,” says Walker-Jones. “We’ve gone from focusing on credibility to focusing on community and eventually we will go from focusing on community to focusing on our customer. In the community phase it is all about engaging with people who have some decision-making power on our ability to operate within and around cities. So that might be people who own infrastructure, local regulators, or it might be campaign action groups.” There is, for example, one in New York called Stop the Chop which essentially campaigns to curb helicopter operations.
“Next comes the customer phase where we actually begin to market to individuals who might buy tickets and that is really when we start talking to your friends,” says Walker-Jones. “It is probably right that they don’t know about it yet, so that is OK. But the people who do know are the right people for the point of the journey that we are at.”
Some will always complain
About a month ago, Joby put out a video showing the noise impact (or lack of) when compared with a helicopter making the same journey from JFK Airport to downtown Manhattan. Measured using a precise microphone array with the help of NASA, the simulation showed Joby’s aircraft produced an acoustic footprint 100x smaller in cruise flight. At a quiet airfield that is barely audible, it will be impossible to hear in a city’s soundscape.
But as opposition to Volocopter’s Olympic plans has shown, public concerns aren’t all about noise. Sometimes people will oppose something new simply for what it is and without any evidence. When Concorde was about to make its first visit to Sydney, the arrival date and time were announced well in advance so that people could come to see it fly over. A source was in ATC in Sydney at the time and right on the scheduled date and arrival time, the phones lit up and complaints started to pour in about the noise and disruption. Many argued that Concorde should be banned from Sydney. The problem with all this was that the aircraft had suffered a minor malfunction in Singapore and was delayed by 24 hours. The complaints were being made on schedule even without the flight having taken place.
“There is a point there. You can do all the acceptance preparations you want but you will never have reached everybody. You can’t make everybody happy either, not everyone will be supportive,” says Walker-Jones.
“I think as a sector we spend so long thinking about can the technology happen, and we have sort of ticked that box now. The next challenge is whether we have communities accept it. I think the answer can be yes if we go about it the right way, but we have to be really conscientious about those conversations and preparing the groundwork. This is new, it has connotations, people will be worried about it and reasonably so. We have a duty to ourselves, the market and the public to make sure we get those conversations right.”
An association’s view
People are more likely to oppose something new in their neighbourhood if they don’t have a good idea of what it is. Include them and explain the ways that something new can open up new opportunities. This approach to getting the public onside with new aviation technologies, and more specifically AAM, will pay real dividends. “The community needs to be involved, they need to understand what’s coming their way for them to support and not push back on this exciting technology,” Chris Rocheleau, COO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) tells us.
But what does that look like from a government perspective? Rocheleau thinks it’s about engaging community leaders, both political and civil, as early as possible in the process. “It is about educating the public about what these aircraft are, how they can contribute to their local community and society writ large, and of course, why they are safe.” he says. “Once that is assured, then you can move onto more exciting aspects of the technology.
“Public acceptance normally precedes public excitement,” says Rocheleau.
The responsibility for creating this falls at the feet of industry, government and regulator. “One of the things we saw very early on with the use of drones was state and local officials interested in airspace management. So once a dialogue is established and an understanding that the federal government controls airspace and safety collaboration among government entities can thrive,” explains Rocheleau. But anyone familiar with US politics knows that various levels of government don’t always get on, and that is not mentioning a number of disputes at the same level.
Where does business aviation come in?
So why does the COO of the US business aviation association care about a transport mode not exclusive to a business jet user? Funnily enough, it was the same question Rocheleau asked the association’s CEO before he joined NBAA. “The bottom line is, when you think about the nature of these operations going forward, they’re going to be business aviation, often operating under Part 135 regulations. You could argue that there are other applications or users, but when it comes to being very compelling both to the regulatory agencies and lawmakers, NBAA is a leader in that space.”
Also, in terms of growth, with a commercial airline, there is access to about 500 runways in the US, but with Part 135 that number extends up to about 5,000. “This gives us [NBAA] an almost exponential ability to drive growth. And we intend to remain a leader in that conversation,” says Rocheleau.
Opposition to business aviation is a growing problem for the sector and could also form the basis of opposition to AAM services. This is something Joby — a firm built on the premise of making clean air travel as accessible as possible — is aware of. “It’s reasonable to assume that business travellers will be an important part of our customer base, but we don’t expect it to be limited to that,” said Joby’s Walker-Jones. “I also think it’s fair to say the price of a ticket will come down over time, making it increasingly accessible, much like the introduction of Tesla vehicles for example.”
Will there be people who question the accessibility of its services? “It’s a reasonable question and we’ve seen it come up recently in Paris. We need to do a very good job of communicating our intention to make the service as accessible as possible, particularly given our service is likely to start with a relatively small number of vehicles,” concludes Walker-Jones.