MobilityTransport & LogisticsThe past of urban airports and the future of vertiports

March 24, 2023

An airport in the middle of London 

Back in the 30s, when the central European cities were still small, simply structured, not densely populated, and without skyscrapers, some of the first airport facilities were planned to be placed on top of central train stations right in the middle of the city! Back then though, aircrafts were still tiny, and people could not foresee the massive use of bigger passenger airplanes carrying people across the Atlantic Ocean. They believed airplanes would be like cars, small, and affordable so everyone could own one. 

A very characteristic example of this mentality was a £5 million ambitious plan to build the “Ariel King’s Cross”, a massive airport on the roof of one of London’s biggest tube stations, the King’s Cross, which finally never saw the light of day due to practical issues. The idea was crafted by the architect Charles Glover, who proposed to build this airport with six runways facing in all directions in a cartwheel design and with a lift that would bring the private planes up to the runaway from the garages. They thought that the airport would make for an easy way to commute to London.

Ariel King’s Cross design by Charles Glover

From propellers to jet engines

“Flying” forward to the 21st century, we now see clearly that people back then in the 1930s were mistaken about their guesses. Airplanes have gone from small and powered by propellers to heavy machines launched thousands of feet into the air by turbofan jet engines. They can now execute long-haul flights across all the oceans and continents on Earth, carrying as many as 550 passengers (like the Airbus A380), have low fuel consumption per passenger and low noise levels, and reduced CO2 and NOx emissions.

From the 1930s onwards, and traveling through the years, the aviation industry changed altogether, the passengers’ needs multiplied and the existing airports were too small and too close to people’s houses. New airports had to be built close to the main cities but at a distance to have prolonged runways, avoid city obstacles like tall buildings and of course gain public acceptance. Consequently, we saw the creation of new airports like the Copenhagen Airport (CPH) in 1925, the Geneva airport that hosted the first six big airlines in 1930, the Heathrow Airport which began in 1929 as a small airfield and was developed into a much larger airport in 1944, the Orly airport in France at 1932, among others. 

Back to the idea of airport proximity

Going back to the idea of Charles Glover and London’s authorities in the ’30s, we can see that their initial thought and provision was to offer aviation services close to where people lived and worked. They might have been mistaken regarding their estimates, but their initial motive was kind and generous. This proximity to the airport facilities has been largely deserted in the past years due to the magnitude of the aviation industry. But is it possibly time to reconsider? With all the technological advancements happening today with air mobility and urban air mobility, are we getting closer to seeing air transportation integrated into regular travel plans from city centres? Or is it still a joke?

Not a joke

It seems that Charles Glovers’ idea is being given new life, as the sector of unmanned aviation grows stronger with U Space services enabling vertical take- off and landing in urban spaces, and thus vertiports are being constructed. According to EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), urban air mobility is expected to become a reality in Europe within 3-5 years while new technologies such as electric propulsion and enhanced battery capacity, applied to vertical take-off and landing systems, are being developed. The first commercial operations using UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) or drones are expected to be the delivery of goods and the transport of passengers, initially with a pilot on board. Later remote piloting or even autonomous services could follow. 

In that aspect, Europe has been funding several joint projects that promote the use of drones for different reasons, like the transfer of medical supplies, the transfer of goods, precision agriculture, mapping, infrastructure inspection, and others. We see award-winning projects like SAFIR-Med where Future Needs worked on creating indicators for urban air mobility impact assessment and BURDI where we work with 21 other Partners on operationalising Belgian Uspace. 

The need for Urban Air-Ports or vertiports

Having these developments in mind, one can logically wonder where all these drones are going to land and take off? In order to accommodate such flights, new infrastructure has to be built across Europe, namely vertiports. According to EASA, vertiports are “dedicated areas that supply the infrastructure needed for safe commercial air transport of passengers or goods that travel by VTOL”. To realise fully the potential of Urban Air Mobility, vertiports need to be easily accessible, with good connecting services to streets, railway stations, buses, etc. They can be either at street level or on top of buildings. VTOL’s can use three different ways to take off: elevated conventional, conventional and vertical. Apart from the above take-off profiles, one major factor to be taken into account is of course safety. The highest safety objectives have been set for Air Taxis, while lower safety objectives have been set for non-commercial air transport of passengers, outside congested areas such as in the countryside.

The first steps have already been taken but there is more to come. A fascinating plan already in place is the “world’s first fully operational Urban-Air Port for drones and electric vertical take-off & landing (eVTOL) aircraft in Coventry, UK”, according to Air One company’s report. Since April 2022, more than 100 successful drone flights were demonstrated to an audience of over 15,000 visitors, while flying cars that transport passengers could start using the airport in 2025. Additionally, autonomous drones will collect and deliver emergency supplies and equipment for the British police and emergency services.

Coventry’s urban airport- credit: Denzeen magazine

Other initiatives include the Urban Blue joint venture among four airports in Italy and France that have been developing infrastructure to support urban air mobility (UAM) operations. The company, established by Aeroporti di Roma, Aeroporto di Venezia, Aeroports de la Cote d’Azur, and Aeroporto Guglielmo Marconi di Bologna, studies, designs, builds and manages vertiports in various geographic areas to promote intra-city mobility with eVTOL aircraft. 

What is next?

Besides the areas in and around the main cities, where else could urban airports be built? Some say that even the tops of shopping centres, hospitals, train stations, and tube stations – remember Charles Glover? – could be ideal locations. But is that a realistic scenario compatible with citizens expectations for cleaner and quieter city centres? And how are these urban airports going to make revenue and become profitable? Are drone companies going to pay for parking as airline companies do now at airports around the world? Lots of research and progress remains to be done before urban airport schemes become a reality. Stay tuned as we will be posting more in the near future on exciting new insights from research in this area.
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