Decades after the federal government funded construction of thousands of airports across the country, NASA proposes using them for their originally intended purpose, and that could be good news for general aviation.
Realizing the vision described in a paper that NASA published in April on regional air mobility (RAM) would require relatively modest investment and change the fundamental economics of air travel. It would reverse a decades-old trend that has shunted most passenger air service through an ever-dwindling number of airports and made travel by air more costly and a lot less convenient than it could be. Written by NASA staff and various industry leaders, including representatives of Boeing Co. and Alaska Airlines, along with the executives of various companies working to develop electric aircraft and automate them to a higher degree, the paper envisions using many more of the 5,000-plus GA airports in service today to make air travel more efficient and affordable, and less time-consuming.
“Airports can make great hubs for synergistic generation and/or storage for alternative energy, such as solar and hydrogen, for ground vehicles, community users, and Regional Air Mobility aircraft. Indeed, 146 airports across the country have already begun a total of 225 renewable energy projects. The largest current airport-based solar farm utilizes 183 acres at Indianapolis International Airport and produces 36.1 million kilowatt-hours per year, enough to power 3,650 homes.”
Regional air mobility would be built with a more distributed network of short-haul flights connecting smaller communities using technologies that have been successfully prototyped and demonstrated. This network could be interconnected with urban air mobility networks, using larger aircraft than the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) designs with up to six seats that are now being developed to serve densely populated cities with rooftop air taxi service. Flights longer than about 500 miles would be handled by larger aircraft powered by jet fuel or sustainable alternatives.
Increased utilization of small airports would make them more valuable to the communities they serve, and that would likely reduce pressure to close airports and develop the land for other uses.
Aircraft today serve only 1.6 percent of all trips between 50 and 500 miles, and the paper envisions dramatically increasing that share with electric aircraft able to use almost any runway currently in service.
“When it comes to distances of a few hundred miles, also known as mid-distance travel, it's no wonder 73% of Americans prefer road trips over flying despite the added time and unforeseen issues that road work and accidents may cause while driving. These obstacles are still better than commercial air travel's inevitable delays, security woes, cramped seats, and a myriad of other frustrations that we have all experienced,” the authors wrote. Adding even a flight or two per day from more than 5,000 airports that see little to no use for travel in the present system would put a cost-competitive air travel option within a 15-minute drive of most homes. “RAM’s vision is to make these local airports the community hubs they were always meant to be, and innovative aircraft, operational models, and infrastructure are the keys to making that happen.”
Much of the needed infrastructure is already in place. Adding airports to a RAM network could be as simple as installing a couple of battery charging stations, said magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski, one of the paper’s authors. He and Reliable Robotics CEO Robert Rose, another author, detailed the roles their respective products could play in transforming air travel during recent interviews. Electric motors being tested for certification in the United States and Canada by magniX, and flight control automation being developed by Reliable Robotics (among others), are the key enabling technologies that could make short-haul flights in small aircraft profitable, while reducing travel time, cost to consumers and operators alike, and carbon emissions, along with related benefits that could also make GA more appealing by making small airplanes easier and less expensive to operate.
Rose said he began his own flight training because GA seemed to be a more efficient way to visit distant family members who do not live near a major metropolitan airport, but he ultimately concluded that he was too busy with a career designing automated control systems for aircraft, spacecraft, and cars (he previously worked at SpaceX and Tesla) to fly often enough to be confident in his proficiency.
“I just simply don’t have the free time to maintain that level of currency,” Rose said. “I would totally invest in owning the aircraft if only it flew itself … I could maintain the radio communications, but I would need the plane to do the flying for me.”
Rose co-founded Reliable Robotics in 2017 with fellow SpaceX alumnus Juerg Frefel. After successfully retrofitting a Cessna Skyhawk for automated flight they have focused their recent efforts on automating a Cessna Caravan that is likely to haul boxes for FedEx on short-haul trips long before it carries paying passengers. Reliable Robotics fitted the Caravan with remote flight controls that enable computer or human control of every phase of flight, from engine start to taxi, takeoff, en route, landing, taxi, and parking. (While automated landings are nothing new, Rose noted, taxiing under computer control was among the tricky parts that had not been done before.)
They do not plan to kick human pilots out of the loop any time soon, however, but Rose does envision a not-too-distant future in which the human pilot monitors each flight from a remote location, intervening only when necessary. Rose said true aircraft autonomy, which is to say an aircraft that is able, without human assistance, to reliably cope with surprises and make sound aeronautical decisions, is still many years away. Consider an in-flight emergency—even if an airport happens to be close at hand, there might be construction on a runway that renders it unsuitable; emergencies more often occur in less convenient locations, where a pilot might be required to choose the least unpalatable of several unappealing landing options.
“I would want a human in the loop helping to make that decision,” Rose said. Today’s computers and software can do a superb job handling all of the “aviate” (aircraft control) and many of the “navigate” tasks, leaving “communicate” and the kinds of important decisions required in the face of emergencies to the human pilot, who may or may not be in the aircraft, allowing that pilot to “focus on what you’re really good at, which is problem-solving in new and unexpected conditions.”
Automated aircraft (with distant humans monitoring and able to intervene when needed) could be repositioned by flying empty legs more cheaply, making it less expensive for an operator to move empty aircraft to where the paying customers are. That cost is one of the factors that currently stands in the way of expanding passenger travel beyond the current model that funnels all passenger air service through about 10 percent of the nation’s airports; 70 percent of air travelers use one of 30 airports, according to the NASA paper.
Even fewer airports would host paying enplanements today if not for the Essential Air Service program created with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which subsidized scheduled service to about 170 communities in 2020, including 60 in Alaska, at a cost of $312 million.
“The future of EAS is uncertain, as it is a frequent target of critics seeking to reduce government expenditures,” the authors wrote. “However, support of its continued existence well past its original sunset date hints at the challenging economics associated with these routes in a purely competitive market landscape.”
Electrification and automation would both contribute to cost savings that change the “challenging economics” of short-haul flights.
“In order for a system like this to be truly practical …you need to dynamically position (aircraft) remotely,” Rose said.
Ganzarski said the federal government’s original intent when building thousands of airports across the country was air travel: “They weren’t created for the small Cessna 172, Cirrus pilot, they were created to connect America.”
The country got connected through large metropolitan hubs instead, because “Everyone figured out the bigger the plane, the more everyone makes money.”
Ganzarski said magniX expects to have its electric airplane motor certified with paying passengers aboard by early 2023, with Harbour Air, the seaplane operator based in Vancouver, British Columbia, on track to be the first electric air travel provider in the world. Harbour Air has been flying de Havilland Beavers with magniX motors since 2019. He said the current limits of battery technology are no barrier to short-haul air travel. Batteries already available or in development could supply sufficient power for short-haul aircraft with up to 19 passengers in a few years; hydrogen fuel cells now being developed could expand passenger capacity to 40 seats or more in a few more years. Those aircraft could comfortably handle the many 200-mile flights served by Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s today.
“You can really create connectivity like it was intended to be,” Ganzarski said. Such change would increase commerce and travel, and by putting rural communities in easy reach of cities “redefine what we’re calling a suburb.”
Scaling air travel for the masses with highly automated electric aircraft would be an easy “sell” for the flying public, he said. Instead of an hourlong drive to the nearest commercial airport, allowing another hour or two to clear security, and another long car trip at the other end, a regional network could put the aircraft 15 minutes from home, with a guaranteed window or aisle seat, and a much shorter trip by ground at the destination end.
“And guess what? You’ll pay 10, 20, 30 percent less for your ticket,” Ganzarski said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a question.”