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Seletar Airport in Singapore. Picture: LAURYN ISHAK/BLOOMBERG
Seletar Airport in Singapore. Picture: LAURYN ISHAK/BLOOMBERG

Just 20 minutes northwest of Singapore’s Changi Airport — regularly voted the world’s best — is Seletar Airport, the city-state’s second, and less known, airfield. It’s predominantly where the super rich land in their private jets. It’s also where the future of aviation could be taking off.

The neighbourhood, more known for its laid-back cafes in restored British-era colonial buildings and sleepy fishing villages, is positioning itself as a hub for flying taxis. Singapore has already signed two agreements with advanced air mobility start-ups Skyports and Volocopter that may convert the ageing aerodrome into a vertiport, or an airport where the aerial devices take off and land vertically, Jetsons-style.

It isn’t some way-off dream, either. Plans for flying taxis to be operational at Seletar are pretty immediate — as soon as 2024 — and the airport, or vertiport, could serve as a global model for what the future of mobility may look like.

Recent interest in so-called eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles) has been immense. Electric cabs stole the limelight at this year’s Singapore Air Show in February with Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes of AirAsia fame placing an order to rent at least 100 of them from Vertical Aerospace. Carriers including American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways have also ordered scores of eVTOLs. 

“Singapore is, and continues to strive to be, the world leader in mobility, and this development is another brick in that wall,” said Sunny Xi, a principal at consultancy Oliver Wyman’s transportation and services practice. “This is more than simply solving traffic on roads. Singapore has all the right ingredients to test, learn and scale both the mobility adoption and the business to then export it across the world.” 

This new industry is innovative, it’s good for inhabitants, for tourists, and for cross-border connections to relieve congestion.

But flying taxis — until recently the stuff of science fiction — have one big and crucial hurdle to clear. Not one has been approved by regulators anywhere to actually take to the skies with passengers on-board. Authorities can take years to approve new technology and it’s only recently that flying taxis have a taken the giant leap from being a concept to a reality. Regulators are now examining the safety of such vehicles before green lighting them for commercial operations.

Companies such as Volocopter say it’s just a matter of time, and Asia will play a large role in eVTOL adoption.

“In Asia, you have a high concentration of mega cities that you don’t have in any other region,” Christian Bauer, Volocopter’s chief commercial officer, said in an interview. “This new industry is innovative, it’s good for inhabitants, for tourists, and also for cross-border connections to relieve the pain of congestion.”

Volocopter, which predicts S$4.2bn ($3bn) of cumulative economic benefits to Singapore and as many as 1,300 local jobs by 2030 from the industry, is showcasing its aircraft in the city-state later this month to increase public awareness. It’s also talked up the “political benefits” including reduced car ownership and the ability of Singapore to position itself as a torchbearer for the rest of Asia.

Fares for passengers are expected to start at about 40% of the cost of a helicopter, according to Bauer. That could drop to around the price of a premium taxi within five to six years, he said.

“This makes it interesting for anyone who can afford a taxi to take a Volocopter instead,” Bauer said, adding that the company’s service will be “very silent compared to a helicopter. You will not hear it at all.”

Volocopter’s backers include Chinese car-making powerhouse Zhejiang Geely as well as German logistics firm DB Schenker and the venture capital arm of chipmaker Intel Skyports is supported by Japan’s Kanematsu and Goodman Group in Australia, as well as Ken Allen, the CEO of DHL eCommerce.

Singapore’s Jurong Town Corporation, commonly known at JTC and a primary state-run developer of real estate, is bullish on Seletar’s scope. The broader area surrounding the airstrip, called Seletar Aerospace Park, is the centrepiece of Singapore’s aerospace industry cluster and home to about 60 companies spanning businesses from engine makers, repairs, research and training. 

With about 82,500 passenger eVTOLs expected to be operational in Asia Pacific by 2050, the region will account for about half the global market, according to a study by Rolls-Royce and consultancy Roland Berger released earlier this year. The flying devices could be used as airport shuttles, for tourist flights or intercity travel, flying as far as 250km on a single charge, according to the study. 

A couple of years back, we were approaching cities. Now cities are approaching Volocopter because they see the demand, they see this revolutionary change, and they want to be there. 
Christian Bauer

“With its high-rise and high-density landscape, and highly efficient domestic transport systems, the vision in Singapore is focused first on tourist flights, and ultimately, regional connectivity,” said Yun Yuan Tay, Skyports’ head of APAC. Seletar, with its integrated cluster of aerospace-related facilities, is “the perfect setting for the holistic development of an industry as new as advanced air mobility,” he said.

More broadly, eVTOLs’ advancement isn’t limited to just Singapore, or Asia.

A unit of Kenya Airways agreed last month to buy as many as 40 flying taxis starting in 2026 from EVE UAM, part of US-headquartered Eve Holding. And England’s Coventry, once known as Britain’s motor city, is gearing up to host what is being billed as the first fully functional hub for flying taxis. The site, on a parking lot at a busy junction across the road from Coventry’s main railway station, is being developed by Urban-Air Port, a London-based start-up that competes with Skyports.

“The good thing is, a couple of years back, we were approaching cities,” said Volocopter’s Bauer. “Now cities are approaching Volocopter because they see the demand, they see this revolutionary change, and they want to be there. Singapore is high on the list.”

Outside regulatory approval, another hurdle is range, with eVTOLs’ flying time relatively limited. Potential electrification of popular passenger planes such as Airbus SE’s A320s series or Boeing’s 737 family has been largely ruled out due to the immense weight of the batteries that would be required to fly hundreds of miles. 

The fact the aerial devices are electric isn’t going to put much of a dent in aviation’s huge carbon footprint, either. 

About 80% of the industry’s carbon emissions come from flights longer than 1,500km, which is why flying taxis won’t be a solution in the near term, the International Air Transport Association’s director-general Willie Walsh said in May. The biggest lobby group for airlines is “conservative” about the impact the technology will have on the industry’s path to net zero, Walsh said.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com

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