AAM Spotlight: Addison Ferrell, Skyports Infrastructure

Addison Ferrell is the director of Skyports Infrastructure.

Credit: Skyports

London-headquartered Skyports Infrastructure is an infrastructure company seeking to develop networks of vertiports around the world to accommodate the expected onset of electric air taxis. The company’s director, Addison Ferrell, recently sat down with the AAM Report to share his vision for urban air mobility (UAM). A partial transcript follows:

AAM Report: What are your main considerations when it comes to site selection for potential vertiport locations?

Ferrell: It’s a bit tongue in cheek, but we like to say the ideal site is in the middle of a city, in a ground-based open field, with no buildings or obstructions nearby, and connected to lots of other transportation infrastructure. In other words: it doesn’t exist. Because fundamentally, if you’re building something where a lot of people want to go, there will already be development there. Even if you find a flat patch of land, it’s going to be very expensive. So, it’s a matter of trade-offs. There are a few factors, however, that you really can’t even buy your way out of, like airspace, for example. You can’t build a vertiport right on the approach path to and from a major hub airport. You also can’t be right next to, or closed in, among a bunch of tall buildings on all sides because there are standards when it comes to the glide slope around a heliport or vertiport. So, airspace is something that you really can’t compromise on during site selection. 

What else do you look for in an ideal vertiport site?

I probably should have started here, but another obvious one is demand. Sure, I could develop a vertiport out in the middle of a field or in the suburbs somewhere, but no one’s going to want to fly there, so it doesn’t make business sense. And then the other big factor we look at is the square footage. Maybe you only have an area for a single FATO [final approach and takeoff area] and that’s it—and that could work—but it might not because you’d be so capacity constrained. Relative to the cost to build out an operation, the landing fees would be so high that no one could actually make the business case work. So, is there enough space to have a vertiport with sufficient throughput that can land, charge, process passengers and so forth, with enough volume that ultimately the business case closes? That’s the question we ask. Now, there are other factors too, like provision of electricity, multimodal connections, etc. But those three big ones I mentioned: demand, airspace and physical space–without those things, it just won’t work.

In what situations does it make sense to co-locate a vertiport on top of another business? 

If we want to get people to areas of high density and a lot of activity, then by definition, sometimes the only available place to go–particularly if you consider any sort of airspace obstruction, trees or power lines–is on top of another building. Now, you don’t want it on top of a skyscraper, because winds are high, the floor plates are small, the passenger journey is terrible and the existing landlord doesn’t like a bunch of random passengers traversing up and down their elevators. But there are other things you can build on top of which are more low rise or medium rise that do work better.

The FAA recently published a blueprint for UAM that envisions initial low-tempo operations using existing helicopter infrastructure. What do you think about the early stages of UAM?

I haven’t read the document yet, but my basic understanding is it aligns with our perspective. We’re trying to be as pragmatic as possible, particularly with the initial rollout. What the industry is trying to do is hard enough, so we should try to find ways to make it as simple as possible at the outset. That will likely involve using VFR flights and existing helicopter routes and infrastructure wherever possible. The volume of operations will be lower in the early stages—if for no other reason than the number of aircraft just won’t be in great supply.

So, aircraft supply will be a gating factor? 

We believe it’ll be a supply-constrained market for a good period of time, because while several OEMs have ambitions for really high production volume, that’s not going to happen in year one. Even if we’re only talking about just a couple of markets, it’s going to take time to build up enough aircraft that you’re really seeing a very high throughput. From our perspective, it’s about being pragmatic and building for operations that suit day one, while at the same time not being oblivious to the future. Basically, we’re designing in the potential growth of the system, and not overly constraining ourselves just because it’ll be low-volume in early years.

How prepared is the industry, in terms of infrastructure, to handle the launch of air taxi services in 2025?

I do believe that infrastructure could be a bottleneck in the growth of the ecosystem as a whole, mainly because it’s difficult and it takes a long time to develop new infrastructure, or to even repurpose existing infrastructure to handle eVTOLs–even at the low volumes that we expect initially. That difficulty is due to the fundamental nature of infrastructure projects, plus the permitting and the public acceptance that’s required to get them built. These projects take time, and there are many hoops you have to jump through. 

What can be done to speed things up?

There are two main things that come to mind. One is regulatory policy, particularly in Western markets, where the permitting of any new building–let alone for vertical flight infrastructure–is difficult and costly. So, to the extent that local zoning and permitting rules can be streamlined to support the industry, that could be very valuable. The other item that could help are the kinds of large-scale demonstrations planned for things like the Olympic Games in Paris. Allowing the public to see the progress going on behind the scenes and letting them experience just how quiet these aircraft are could have a massive knock-on effect for momentum in the industry.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Boston, Ben covers advanced air mobility and is managing editor of Aviation Week Network’s AAM Report.