World

Soaring above the gridlock: On-demand airlines take commuters to the skies

With urban congestion increasing every year, some customers are seemingly more willing to pay a premium to commute by air — and more startups taking off as a result.

Due to growing demand and emerging technology, more startups are allowing people to travel to work by air

These passengers are commuting to work by plane, using Surf Air's flight membership service. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Chris Scanlan and two fellow commuters walk toward their vehicle on a hazy Monday morning.

The bad news: Due to heavy fog, the trip to work will take them a little longer today — just over an hour.

The good news: A car ride would ordinarily take about six hours.

Soaring above the rush-hour traffic in a private plane or helicopter used to be the sole purview of the mega-rich, but due to growing demand and emerging technology, at least a few more people, like Scanlan, can afford to commute by air.

"Time is the one commodity we can't buy more of it and can't get it back," said Scanlan, president of American sales with an Israeli IT company.

Scanlan and his fellow passengers belong to a new flight membership service by Surf Air, offering unlimited flights for a fixed price. Operating in California and Texas, Surf Air flies between a handful of major cities and has logged more than 75,000 flights since 2013.

The fees aren't exactly cheap, starting at $1,950 US a month, but they come at a fraction of the cost of owning or renting a private aircraft. (The company also has a pay-as-you-go model, with one-way flights starting at $500.)

Due to growing demand and emerging technology, more startups are popping up, allowing people to commute by air. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Seated across from Scanlan is Tracy Keim, a vice-president with the genetic testing company 23andMe. The model allows her to work in Silicon Valley, but live some 550 kilometres away, in Los Angeles.

"We're starting to turn into a convenience culture," said Keim. "This type of air travel, like Amazon Prime, is just all about convenience."

With urban congestion increasing every year, some customers are seemingly more willing to pay a premium to commute by air. And more startups taking off as a result, including Uber Copter, Blade, BlackBird and Wheels Up.

An hour-long commute across the Bay Bridge, from Oakland to San Francisco, takes less than 15 minutes by helicopter. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Consider one of the busiest commutes in the U.S.: Oakland to San Francisco.

Crossing the Bay Bridge can often take an hour, but with a couple of clicks on a newly launched app called Voom — a ride-on-demand urban helicopter platform that landed in the U.S. in late September — passengers can float happily over the winking brake lights, booking as little as an hour before takeoff.

"The aim is really to bring the air to the masses," said Voom CEO Clément Monnet.

Owned by aerospace giant Airbus, Voom customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mexico City or São Paulo can book a ride to and from a number of airports, taking a chopper to work, like a CEO or head of state, at a much lower rate.

"We offer flights that are ranging between $150 US to $275. So it's not yet a mass market product, but that's definitely more affordable than the $1,000 to $2,000 helicopter flight," said Monnet. "As we scale, and bring volume and also more advanced technology in our app, we can actually manage to reduce that price even more, and bring it to more people."

Voom offers flights priced from $150 to $275 US. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Advocates for aerial commuting say these new companies are taking advantage of two underutilized resources in the country: the vast number of small aircraft and airports that aren't available for larger commercial flights.

It also allows for another added convenience: Passengers are able to avoid the large lines of major terminals and arrive just 15 minutes before departure, taking off quickly from small airports like Hawthorne Municipal near Los Angeles and San Carlos near San Francisco.

The ultimate goal, Monnet says, is to help reduce congestion.

"It's predicted that by 2030, 60 per cent of the world population will be living in cities, so the congestion issue will just grow. And … that's a tremendous problem we're trying to solve."

Voom CEO Clément Monnet says his ultimate goal is to 'bring the air to the masses.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But transportation expert Alexandre Bayen doubts the answer is in the skies.

Bayen, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, has observed the link between rising urban congestion and the demand for aerial commuting.

He points to research conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which found the average American commute grew to a record high in 2018: Just over 27 minutes, one way. The typical American commuter now spends 20 minutes more a week commuting than they did a decade ago, or about 17 extra hours per year.

"It pushes a specific segment of the population, for which the value of time is so high, that suddenly that mode becomes very attractive," said Bayen.

Companies claim commuting by air will help alleviate traffic, but UC Berkeley's Alexandre Bayen says it's not going to be enough to be 'a congestion-relief mechanism.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But he doesn't believe even a dramatic increase in commuter flights will make the drive to work any faster for those stuck on the ground.

"In the U.S., a single traffic lane on a freeway carries up to 2,000 vehicles per hour when it operates at capacity," said Bayen. "There's no way you can match that in the space above a city. So this is absolutely not going to be a congestion relief mechanism."

And then there's the issue of regulation.

In the U.S., companies operating short flights under 18,000 feet, like Voom's helicopters, aren't required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to file a flight plan, which typically has to be done well in advance.

Experts say regulations have yet to catch up with rising demand for short flights. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But as this type of travel becomes more prevalent, Bayen says that is likely to change.

"In the same way that car travel has all kinds of regulations, whether these are tolling, or special-use lanes, or access restrictions, or pay-as-you-go, you can see that the same type of methodologies could happen to air travel," said Bayen, especially "if, at some point, air travel becomes a major polluter problem in urban cities."

The FAA already says it has been working aggressively to police charter operations, and recently issued a guidance document for both charter pilots and passengers.

Last week, it warned BlackBird, an app that connects customers with pilots, to expect "further investigative activity" into its operations, particularly its pilot database. 

Further, environmentalists insist that the solution to urban gridlock is more environmentally friendly public transportation, not more greenhouse gas-emitting aircraft.

But Monnet insists Voom's helicopters are a form of mass transit.

"Most of our flights today are actually three or more passengers inside the aircraft, whereas in the U.S., 80 per cent of rides in cars are single passenger," Monnet said. "And tomorrow, hopefully we can even build larger vehicles that can be electrical."

The Airbus-owned Vahana is working on an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) prototype, which is aimed at greening up the skies. (Vahana)

He points to Airbus's Vahana project, an electric, single-seat, tilt-wing vehicle, which could reach speeds of 190 km/h. It made its final test flight in November, before the project was terminated in December. But Monnet expects electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft will one day be the future of aerial commuting.

"There are dozens of companies in the world today building these type of vehicles that are 100 per cent electric, 100 per cent autonomous," Monnet said. "I fully expect that in the next decade, we'll have one of these vehicles certified in the world and that we can slowly introduce this vehicle into the market."

A market study by aerospace industry analysts Nexa Advisors suggests the urban air mobility market will be worth a total of $318 billion US over the next 20 years.

Despite his reservations about aircraft easing congestion, Bayen too believes that eventually more commuters will be looking out of their windows and seeing clouds instead of brake lights.

"We're probably 10 years from that market taking off," he said. "We're just seeing the beginning, essentially, of this trend."

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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