Conquering new grounds
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Many exciting developments in aviation are based on the concept of Regional Air Mobility (RAM). A potential market that creators of both battery electric and hydrogen electric aircraft are trying to conquer.
So, what is this new type of aviation?
I am not talking about regional airlines
When thinking about Regional Air Mobility, the first thing that comes to my mind are regional airlines. Yes, a type of air transport that we already have. So, in what way will RAM differ from long established regional airlines such as KLM Cityhopper and Flybe?
To grasp this difference it is necessary to address the difference between the flights in a hub-and-spoke model and point-to-point flights.
In modern aviation passengers often need to travel via a large airport hub to get to their destination. That hub is neither the airport close to home, nor the airport of their final destination. However, due to insufficient demand for flights between their home airport and the final destination, passengers are brought together at a place that they don't want to be, but need to be to make their trip economically viable.
The large aircraft that take off from hubs like London Heathrow and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson are fed with passengers by smaller aircraft that brought the passengers in from a regional airport. These so called “feeder flights” are the core business of many regional airlines.
RAM will focus on point-to-point flights. These are flights that are predominantly booked by passengers who only need to take one flight to get from their local airport to their destination. These can be flights between larger airport, but are often between regional airports. And since regional airports have a relatively small customer potential, the aircraft that operate these flights are often small as well.
Regional jets usually have a capacity of 50 to 80 seats. For most regional airlines, flying with aircraft smaller than 50 seats makes no economical sense. So few passengers cannot cover the costs of the operation. This prevents these airlines from operating from smaller cities and towns because there are not enough potential customers to fill at least 50 seats. Connecting those smaller airports, with each other or with larger airports, will be the business case for RAM.
The time has come
The NASA report “Regional Air Mobility: Leveraging Our National Investments to Energize the American Travel Experience” states that RAM focusses on flights with a distance of 50 to 500 miles. The same report states that only 1.6% procent of the trips in this category are taken by air. RAM will be entering a market in which aviation is only a small player. So, unlike regional airlines, RAM-operators main competitors are not other aviation operators. They will have to compete with trains, trucks and busses. Yes, ground transportation.
Having to compete with completely different modes of transportation has its challenges.
The first challenge is that you have to make potential customers aware that there will be a new type of transportation available. People are used to taking the train or car for trips less than 500 miles long. That is what their parents and grand parents did as well. They praise the benefits and have a blind eye for the downsides. Yes, people like to complain about high gas prices and traffic jams. However, to take the train is for many people a bridge too far.
Secondly, the customer experience at airports has been in decline for years. People have to wait in line several times during their trip. For the security check, passport check, to get their luggage, etc. Adding many hours to their trip. Even though this image mostly applies to large airport hubs, and only a lesser degree to regional airports, it is an image that the aviation industry as a whole has to cope with.
As an airline offering flights from large congested airports, when your main competition are other airlines at the same airports, the congestion hurts all parties equally. When your competition's services are based on a different kind of infrastructure, as is with RAM, you are the only one suffering.
Aviation is too centralized
These bad experiences at airports are caused by most passengers traveling via a relatively small number of airports. NASA calculated that 70% of all travelers in the U.S. travel via 30 airports, while the total amount of airports in the U.S. is over 5.000. This means that most of the American passengers fly via 0,6% of the available airports.
The unique selling point for RAM will be to make use of the other 99,4% of the airports. Those airports won't be congested, thereby improving the travel experience for passengers and the punctuality of the flights. And there is a good change that you live much closer to a regional airport than to a major hub. NASA states that the average American lives only 16 minutes away from an airport. Usually an airport that is publicly funded and mainly used for recreational flying and an occasional private jet.
Governments in many countries struggle with the extremes of the airport spectrum. Too many airports are or too large, or too small. The large ones create excessive pollution, noise and other harmful side effects. While the small ones consume a lot of tax payers money while only a few tax payers are using them.
So, decentralize it
Why not distribute the flights more evenly over all the available airports?
The first thing that comes to mind is price. The succes of airport hubs is based on the ability to fly cheap. And it is true that airlines have been struggling to find enough passengers that want to pay more for a flight from a regional airport.
However, many developments are tipping the scale in favor of the regional airports and RAM. Especially the increasing time it takes to fly from a large airports. Often the roads towards the airport are just as congested as the airport itself. The total trip time is hours longer than it was 25 years ago.
Take into account that this extra travel time improves the business case for online video calls via Zoom or Teams. Especially among business travellers. Many airlines state that business travellers have been longing to see their customers and vendors face-to-face after two years of lockdown. And even though that is true, when the average company decides to reduce their business travel by only 5% or 10% for the next few years, many airlines will take a serious hit.
Alternatives on the ground (car, train, truck and bus) tackle some of the mentioned problems. You don't have to be at a busstop or train station hours in advance. And when you arrive too late, there is a good change that the next available option is within half an hour. However, congestion on the roads and railroads is becoming an increasing problem for these types of transportation. A solution for that would be to increase the amount of roads and railway, but that will take up a lot of space as well. To use a phrase that is often use to promote aviation: Traveling 500 miles by train will require 500 miles of railway, while traveling 500 miles by plane will only require a few miles of runway.
By offering flights from the quieter, easier to access regional airports, Regional Air Mobility could be a viable alternative for both common airlines and long distance ground transportation.
So, during the past decades, different developments have been making it more difficult for passengers to enjoy air travel. The hub-and-spoke model made flying cheaper than ever before, especially on long haul flights. Thereby significantly increasing commercial aviation's customer potential. But for the model to work, that increasing number of passengers needs to go via a small number of airports. Making them also more crowded than ever before.
In addition, the security policies at airports world wide are getting more strict (especially since 9/11). Creating situations where people sometimes spend more time at the airport than in the aircraft. And air travel shouldn't take more time on the ground than in the air.
Combine this with congested roads and limited space for more asphalt or railway and you have the perfect business case for Regional Air Mobility.