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POLITICO Pro Morning Mobility: Air taxi future — ITA on Alitalia — Staff shortage threat

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Presented by GE.

By MARI ECCLES

PRESENTED BY

— We take a look at the future of urban air mobility and ask CEO of air taxi firm Supernal if flying cars will ever be a thing.

— ITA Airways’ CEO says it’s keen on flying taxis as a link between airport hubs, but keeps mum on the company’s takeover.

— Tourism groups say more than 1 million staff vacancies in the EU’s tourism sector, many of them in aviation, threaten its recovery.

Good morning, and welcome to Morning Mobility. Greetings from the Farnborough airshow, where we’ve prepared a special aviation-focused edition of Morning Mobility. We’ll be back to normal programming Friday. In the meantime, bonne fête nationale to those in Belgium!

Tips to [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]. Tweet us @joshposaner, @hclae and @marieccles.

DRIVER, FOLLOW THAT BIRD! Flying taxis might seem the ultimate space-age pipe dream, but exhibitors at this week’s Farnborough airshow in Hampshire are keen to prove that short-haul, electric-powered planes will soon be a reality. The operators of these craft — many of them traditional mobility manufacturers such as Embraer and Hyundai — predict that so-called electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft will enter the market in three to five years. Industry experts say they will likely be used initially to shuttle passengers to and from airports, and predict that travelers will be prepared to pay to avoid the hassle of connections. Indeed, Virgin Atlantic and an eVTOL start-up from the U.K., Vertical Aerospace, announced Tuesday they would be trialing air taxi trips out of London Heathrow and Bristol airports from 2024.

Urban sprawl: Operators forecast that the industry will have huge implications for cities. Mike Whitaker, chief commercial officer at Supernal, Hyundai’s U.S.-based electric air vehicles unit, told me in an interview that the tech — which the company was demonstrating at the airshow — could extend a city’s catchment area. “I was talking to people from a town about 60 miles from San Francisco, where the average house price is a very reasonable couple of hundred thousand dollars, versus [more than $1] million in San Francisco,” he said. “If you could live in that neighborhood [and] work in San Francisco, you could save almost $1 million on your house. So in a way it allows you to expand the city.” 

Counting the cost: Whitaker said it was too early to estimate how much an initial flight might cost, but compared it to Uber’s premium Black service. He argued that the San Francisco commuter case showed that the economics of the industry made sense. “When you think about how much you save on your mortgage, you can [afford to] spend a fair amount on the ride into the city to your high-paid job,” he said.

Who’s in charge? Tensions could flare over the role of local authorities, given that several European cities including Amsterdam, Porto, Stockholm and Ljubljana have been explicit about wanting to be involved in urban air mobility. Back in 2020, for example, they were among the signatories to a “Cities Community” initiative in which they asked that “the role of cities … as one of the competent authorities in the governance of the urban airspace… [be] explicitly acknowledged.” Whitaker agreed that municipalities should have input into where so-called vertiports are built and be allowed to voice local expectations and rules on noise. “But there can be a tension if the city thinks it can design the airspace. Because we don’t want [different] airspace rules in different cities,” he said.

Who’s at the wheel? Whitaker told me the plan is ultimately for the vehicles to be autonomous, but said he recognized the public will need time to get used to the idea. He predicted that pilotless planes could arrive by the mid-2030s provided that the “regulatory structure [is] in place and people [are] accepting.”

Pilot project: So just who will be driving these flying taxis over the next few years? The industry is in the grips of a huge pilot shortage, with aging staff, high demand and COVID-induced early retirements creating the perfect labor storm. But when the matter was raised on a panel in Farnborough earlier this week, André Stein, CEO of Embraer subsidiary Eve, said he wasn’t concerned. Flying an electric plane a few dozen miles with only a handful of passengers requires significantly less training than bringing hundreds of people across a continent, he argued. “It’s a much lower pilot workload,” he said. “You’re more of an operator than a pilot.”

Stein predicted that electric vehicles would create a natural professional pipeline, with eVTOL operators eventually becoming airline pilots, or the latter switching down to city-hopping, battery-powered flying taxis in pursuit of an easier life.

ITA AIRWAYS CEO SAYS AIR TAXIS COULD REPLACE FEEDER FLIGHTS: It’s not just big manufacturers that welcome flying taxis — traditional airlines also see them as part of the future. The CEO of Alitalia successor ITA Airways, Fabio Lazzerini, told journalists at Farnborough that urban air mobility could help link the company’s Rome Fiumicino hub with other airports in Italy such as Milan Linate. “That will allow us to cancel some routes which are there only for feeding reasons,” he said. In April, the company announced a collaboration with Airbus on urban air mobility in Italy, and will be examining how and where Airbus’ own CityAirbus NextGen craft could be used.

Also on ITA’s mind: Before that happens, ITA will be occupied with its own future. The Italian government is currently weighing two bids for major stakes in ITA: One is from Lufthansa and shipping group MSC; the other from Air France-KLM in partnership with private equity firm Certares. Lazzerini wouldn’t be drawn on which bid he prefers, saying only that both candidates “want to build on our business plan.”

**A message from GE: GE is developing technologies to reduce CO2 emissions for a more sustainable future of flight. This includes innovating advanced new engine architectures such as open fan through the CFM International joint venture, megawatt-class hybrid electric propulsion, advanced new engine core designs, and supporting alternative fuels research. Learn More.**

CONFIRMED ORDERS SO FAR: Farnborough is more than just a chance to gab with aviation geeks and gawk at cool new tech (although there is a lot of that). It’s also about big orders for manufacturers. Among the headline numbers so far: Delta Airlines confirmed an order for 100 of Boeing’s 737 MAX 10s on Monday, while easyJet confirmed an order for 56 of Airbus’ A320neo Family aircraft following shareholder approval. Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer secured deals with Porter for 20 jets, worth $1.56 billion. It also confirmed a 21-aircraft order by the Alaska Air Group for its E175 model, valued at $1.12 billion.

Still hearing crickets: Despite those sales, Reuters reports it’s been a quiet air show so far and that Air India, which is preparing a huge $50 billion order, won’t have that finalized before the show ends on Friday.

STAFF SHORTAGES STIFLE RECOVERY: While most of the industry has decamped to this quiet corner of England, the aviation sector’s problems haven’t gone anywhere. The European Travel Commission and the World Travel & Tourism Council both say Europe’s tourist industry will struggle to recover as long as 1.2 million job vacancies across the sector remain unfilled. The pain is apparent this summer: The travel industry’s chronic staff shortages — which have hit airports, airlines and baggage handling companies the hardest — have been causing long queues, delays and canceled flights.

What can be done? The tourism groups are calling for “labor mobility” within and among countries, and say visas and work permits must be provided if the employment gap is to be filled. If travel restrictions prevent that from happening, they say, labor policies must become more flexible to allow people to work remotely where possible (although it’s hard to imagine that would help matters at airports). The groups also stress that the sector must offer “decent work, provide social safety nets and highlight career growth opportunities” to attract and retain employees. That echoes calls from unions, which have long decried the deterioration of labor conditions for staff in aviation, also before pandemic.

Grocery delivery firm Flink has asked a Berlin court to decide when employees are entitled to elect a works council; staff fear that may undermine negotiations on work conditions. More from us.

Uber has agreed to pay more than $2 million to settle the U.S. government’s claims that its wait-time fees discriminate against customers with disabilities, the BBC reports.

General Motors and Ford Motor have asked U.S. auto safety regulators to grant exemptions to deploy a limited number of self-driving vehicles without human controls like steering wheels and brake pedals. Reuters has more.

**A message from GE: GE shares another of the top innovations and industry-leading efforts in the march toward net-zero. Advancing Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). December 1, 2021. United Airlines operated the first passenger flight using 100% SAF in one of the two CFM LEAP-1B engines. The historic flight was also important for efforts to increase SAF above the current blending limit of 50%. SAF approved today is a blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and a SAF component. GE’s fuels expert helps lead industry efforts to develop standardized specifications for 100% drop-in SAF, without blending. “We learned we can actually blend two distinct SAF types together to get to fully drop-in sustainable synthetic Jet A as a replacement for conventional Jet A,” said Gurhan Andac, GE’s fuels leader. In fact, all GE and CFM engines can operate with approved SAF today, which is produced from alternative feedstocks and processes, lowering lifecycle carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. Learn More.**

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