eVTOLs and Vertiports

BBGA eVTOL & Vertiports meeting 2024

(L to R): Tim Fauchon, CEO, Helicopter Association International | Alex Durand, CEO, SaxonAir, Vice Chair, BBGA | James Dillon-Godfray, Head of Development Development, London Oxford Airport | Alistair Blundy, Skyrisks (AAM insurance) | Jeremy Hartley, Vertiports Policy Specialist, UK Civil Aviation Authority | Sandy Boyer, Sales Manager, Executive Aviation, Hunt & Palmer.

A big challenge in aviation today is keeping close to future developments while keeping up with the day job. This certainly applies to future eVTOL operations. With the UK Civil Aviation Authority launching an industry consultation on how these future ‘Vertiports’ may look and be supported, this year’s BBGA media session, sponsored by Hunt & Palmer, looked at how we can accommodate them into our busy ecosystem. Could they be happy bedfellows with established VTOLs (helicopters)?

Information and industry advice garnered from this consultation will help form the basis for the regulations required for future (VFR initially) flights in order to develop bespoke vertiports, in places like city centres, on top of car parks, over rivers, said Jeremy Hartley, the regulator’s Vertiports Policy Specialist. When all the recommendations are in he will start running industry workshops, collaborating with peers.

The good news is that the CAA advocates welcoming eVTOLs at existing airfields first – ones that are well used to VTOL (helicopter) operations and may already be under-used. These airfields can offer guidance on how to operate these aircraft and how to set it all up to ensure safety. Not just for people flying, but for the public. The goal is to have these regulations determined by the end of this year, Jeremy said.

Business aviation operators are well placed to be an ‘early adopter’ of eVTOLs, suggested James Dillon-Godfray, Head of Business Development for London Oxford Airport and London Heliport, representing the only licensed heliport in London and likely to host these operations in the future. Or at least be a divert point.

Alex Durand, SaxonAir CEO and BBGA Vice Chair agreed. This is a unique opportunity for us to explain what we do and why we exist. Explain how we are making air travel more accessible and sustainable, because we’re opening a new demographic that is far more affordable. We’re selling it as a new democratization and connectivity. And I think people are going to get it. If we can convince them this can serve as a community asset, and the planners will get on board. Is his company ready for them? No, not yet.

James Dillon-Godfray continued, there is much merit in letting our sector get the experience with private customers to see how they work in the real world, before they’re introduced to full commercial (airline) service with higher volume passenger numbers, (by way of pay-by-the-seat shuttle services). This is the path Volare Aviation (Oxford Airport resident) and Lilium are preparing to take, introducing seven into service with their private clients.

A lot needs to be done to get ready for them, infrastructure wise, highlighted Hunt & Palmer Sales Manager Sandy Boyer. His brokerage charters a lot of helicopters, but eVTOLs have not yet got on to their client’s radars – as sustainable aviation fuel (for helicopters) has. Suggestions some could be in service in 2026 is very, very ambitious, the panel agreed.

The regulators will also have to consider how much current regulations suffice, and what new aspects need addressing. For example, existing aircraft land at a lower weight than they had at take-off, while battery-powered eVTOLs will not – and thus the ability of landing gear, skids may be different. The crash-worthiness of battery packs is another area, and the thermal runaway characteristics of a lithium battery fire will be different from risks of liquid fuels such as Jet A1.

Edmiston London Heliport/Veriport

The Edmiston London Heliport is allowed 12,000 annual movements per year. This doesn’t include eVTOL operations.,

“We can’t see how we could practically host conventional eVTOL type operations (at The Heliport), so we must remain agnostic in terms of the different operators and OEMs wanting to use our facility,” said James Dillon-Godfray. Moreover, a lot of investment will be needed. There is a big issue on recharging, and where they will position. It is not something we are prepared to do right now, he said. “We can’t have eVTOL clients sitting on our FATO; taking up a lot of time and space being recharged. Imagine busy periods like the Cheltenham races?. Our current passengers cannot be delayed, nor do we have the elbow room in terms of capacity on the ground.

There will be a lot of tests and trials, no doubt, but to consider any kind of commercial services is not a priority today. Future landing spots like Westminster, Chelsea, on barges, is Nirvana – maybe in 10 years – he suggested. We have also yet to reach an agreed standard on charging infrastructure.
There’s no guarantee that if you take off from one location, you’ll be able to land at your chosen destination, cautioned Tim Fauchon, CEO of British Helicopter Association. Any delay for an eVTOL wouldn’t allow them to go into a hold like a conventional helicopter pilot does. You’ll have to divert, and that location may not have the required infrastructure, and then your machine is dead on the ground” he suggested. With helicopter reserves of typically 30 minutes, that could more than double the required duration for an eVTOL, creating challenges with battery size etc.

“We operate the Velis Electro, currently the only certified electric aircraft, and we have constant hurdles just operating a light aircraft in an existing facility”, added Durand, whose company HQ is at Norwich Airport. Scale that up and the challenges become enormous, even more so when we’re talking about unproven, uncertified noise profiles and technology,” he said.

For our members it’s got to be understanding the business case, added Fauchon, whose association is based at Fairoaks Airport in Surrey, a licensed airport with two sizeable helicopter operators Luxaviation-owned Starspeed and FlexJet, both of which could add eVTOL operations.

Noise will also be a big issue for any new site – Tim reflected there have been attempts to put barges on the Thames and each time the local councils have objected. In the summer people complain about helicopter noise, or their animals being frightened. Okay, if it was a police or air ambulance, they can see that it is for the common good, but if you live next to Battersea and bought a very expensive flat on the river at the weekend or a winter’s day when there’s not much traffic, you’ll join the voices in the summer months that want to see the heliport close – irrespective of the fact the it has operated since 1959.

Operations will only be commercially successful if these eVTOLs can obtain affordable insurance, noted Alistair Blundy, CEO of Skyrisks, a new insurance specialist founded last year to work in step with future advanced air mobility operators. Even if there isn’t an imminent need for an insurance policy, you need to be bringing an insurance professional on the journey in step with you, he advised. A unique feature of ‘aviation’ insurance is that there’s always a human being at the end of the phone. Getting an insurer on board early will help ensure insurance coverage afforded to each operator fits the risk profile; that the necessary underwriting and claims expertise is in place to respond to events should the worst happen.

It’s important for media to come out and see these new aircraft, understand new sites in the more useful places like on top of the rail station or something like that, said Dillon-Godfray. But until you can demonstrate it, it’s a difficult conversation to have. You will have to give it another year or two.
We’ve got to start from the beginning to get these aircraft into our existing system, figure them out, and then start to go from there, understand what their reserves are going to be and what kind of reserves do we need? It’s all of these different things, an incremental approach step by step, toward future flights, the CAA’s Jeremy Hartley concluded.


Posted on Tuesday 9th April 2024

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