Tampa International Airport is aiming to make electric air taxis a possibility.
On Thursday, the airport hosted Florida’s first test flight of an electric vertical takeoff and landing plane, more commonly known as eVTOLs or electric air taxis.
It was also the first demonstration in the U.S. at a major airport, which officials said was symbolic of the region’s history as the birthplace of commercial flight.
“This is going to be a reality for us very soon,” said Tampa International Airport’s chief executive officer, Joe Lopano.
Flying taxis are intended for shorter- or medium-range travel, like destinations within a city or between a metropolitan center and its suburbs, whether for passengers or cargo. The aim of this technology is to reduce traffic congestion and lower emissions.
Lopano said it has the potential to be a last-mile option for passengers like a Boston resident traveling to Anna Maria Island. One day, they could book a ticket to Tampa International Airport with an air taxi connection directly to the beach.
The airport partnered with Volocopter, a German urban air mobility company that could have flying taxis in service for the Olympics Games in Paris next year.
The white Volocopter aircraft looked like a mix between a helicopter and a delivery drone. Instead of rotating blades, there was a ring of a dozen small propellers above the flying taxi’s vessel. The craft seats two people: a pilot and one passenger. Volocopter CEO Dirk Hoke said the aircraft could be built bigger to accommodate more people, but current battery technology is slow to meet its ambitions at the moment.
Still, Hoke said the company aims to make sure the aircraft doesn’t pollute the urban areas it hopes to operate in.
“No black skies in the years to come,” he said as the eVOTL rolled out from the airport’s Sheltair hangar into a smaller runway.
For the test, a crowd of state, regional and transportation leaders crowded by a red rope marking how close the Federal Aviation Authority would allow spectators to get.
About 50 feet away, the propellers whirred up, creating a loud hum, which was still quieter than a helicopter at liftoff. The vehicle lifted straight in the air. For five minutes, test pilot Olivier Renard flew around the airfield, with the airport’s main terminal and Raymond James Stadium in the background.
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Hoke pointed out that people could still have a normal conversation without having to shout while the air taxi flew around.
The demonstration was attended by local and state politicians, such as Florida Department of Transportation assistant secretary for strategic development Kim Holland, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, who spoke on the dire need to invest in future transportation technologies to boost the area’s economy.
“Aviation has always played a pivotal role in the growth and development of the Tampa Bay area,” Welch said. “And as we’ve become more powerful as a region, our continued ascent depends on our ability to connect more people around our region more efficiently and in an environmentally sustainable way.”
Welch discussed how building a footprint of transportation projects like air taxis, the SunRunner rapid bus transit system, construction of the new Howard Frankland Bridge and the Cross Bay Ferry can help improve the region’s transportation challenges.
He even mentioned having all these for St. Petersburg’s Historic Gas Plant District, which is set to include a new Rays stadium.
“We want to make sure that everyone in the bay area has multiple options to get there,” Welch said.
But are air taxis the future or just a fad? That is yet to be determined, but leaders on both sides of the bay are interested in seeing its potential to connect the region.
The airport first announced it was seriously investing in the technology and building infrastructure for it during its 20-year master plan update in July, which includes building a new terminal center and modernizing ticketing.
Airport consultants looked into eight different sites and narrowed it down to a location farther from active runways and closer to the International Mall. Gina Dew, TPA’s director of government and community relations, said the airport is reliant on federal regulations and how the aviation industry progresses to assess how exactly it would implement air taxis.
The technology still has a long way to go to scale, Hoke said. Volocopter expects to get certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency as soon as next year. Hoke said he hopes FAA approval will follow. FAA employees were at the test using sensors on the craft to measure the test flight’s impact on air traffic.
Once there’s a green light from federal officials, flights could start between 2025 and 2035, and limited operations between cities could become possible within five years after that, according to an industry study by Deloitte that’s cited in the airport’s master plan.
Hoke said air taxis should be affordable to most people, but admitted it likely won’t be initially. With limited battery technology, the first commercial flights would only travel 12 miles. That’s about the width of Tampa Bay.
Public acceptance is also one of its biggest hurdles, Hoke said. But by obtaining government approval and conducting test flights like this, that could change.
“Seeing is believing, hearing is believing,” Hoke said. “You all want to be sure once you fly here, it’s emission free, it’s quiet and it’s safe. All of that is guaranteed with this new generation of vehicles.”