Avolon, the aircraft leasing group, as well as American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have made preliminary commitments to buy up to 1,000 electric air taxis from a British start-up in the biggest sign yet of a radical shift to urban air mobility.
Vertical Aerospace, a maker of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs), will manufacture the air taxis. The company was founded just five years ago by Stephen Fitzpatrick, the Ovo Energy entrepreneur.
Vertical plans to go public later this year on the New York Stock Exchange via a merger with special purpose acquisition vehicle Broadstone Acquisition, in a deal valuing it at $2.2bn. Broadstone was founded by a clutch of British entrepreneurs, including Hugh Osmond.
Other investors in the Spac will include American Airlines, Avolon, Honeywell, Rolls-Royce and Microsoft’s venture capital fund M12.
The futuristic plane, dubbed the VA-X4, will have a range of more than 100 miles and be able to travel near-silently at speeds of more than 200mph. It aims to be able to carry four passengers in addition to a pilot. A trip from London to Brighton would take half an hour.
Fitzpatrick, Vertical chief executive, said “electrification will transform flying in the 21st century in the same way the jet engine did 70 years ago”.
Vertical plans to start commercial operations in 2024 once the aircraft has been certified under air safety regulations.
Although the combined commitments from the airlines are the biggest yet for electric air taxis, they are not the first. The industry still faces significant challenges — from gaining public acceptance to building the necessary infrastructure and meeting regulatory demands.
The customer commitments are also still subject to conditions. American has agreed to pre-order up to 250 aircraft, with an option for an additional 100. Avolon said it would order 310 with an option for a further 190. Virgin Atlantic has an option to purchase between 50 and 150 aircraft.
Virgin Atlantic will also explore plans for a joint venture with Vertical to develop a Virgin-branded short-haul electric taxi network in the UK.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the joint venture would look to connect cities around the UK and the airline’s airport hubs, “starting with London Heathrow as well as Manchester and London Gatwick”.
Investor interest in eVTOLs has soared in recent years, with analysts issuing bullish predictions for the air taxi market amid increasing pressure on the aviation sector to reduce carbon emissions and as battery technology improves.
Dómhnal Slattery, Avolon chief executive, said air travel after the Covid-19 pandemic would be “materially reshaped with airlines needing to embrace emerging technologies that decarbonise air travel”.
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