Ireland is well-positioned to be a “global centre of excellence” in the ultra-short-haul urban air industry, which will see zero-emission, electric aircraft transport people across the world’s major cities in minutes, the chief executive of Dublin-based aircraft lessor Avolon has said.
Avolon announced on Thursday that it had reached an agreement to buy up to 500 VA-X4 aircraft from Bristol-based company Vertical Aerospace for $2 billion (€1.7 billion).
The VA-X4 is a piloted, zero emissions, electric, vertical take-off and landing plane. It is capable of travelling over 320 km/h (200mp/h), with a range of over 100 miles and capacity for four passengers and a pilot.
“I’ve been in the game since 1989 and this is the single biggest thing that has excited me most since the first day I got a job working for Tony Ryan,” Avolon chief executive Dómhnal Slattery told The Irish Times on Friday.
“We’re going to become the first lessor to lead what I believe will be the next leap forward in the transportation industry. It’s not science fiction; it’s real, it’s here and we’re committing a lot of dollars.
“Morgan Stanley is forecasting that this industry could be a $1 trillion business by 2040. Based on our work, demand for these types of aircraft globally could be exponential.”
The aircraft takes off vertically, like a helicopter, enabling it to operate in and out of cities and other confined locations. Mr Slattery said it is safer and 100 times quieter than a helicopter.
“The first reason is you have eight separate rotors,” he said. “A helicopter has one. Secondly, these airlines are designed to fly autonomously. There will be a pilot, but we don’t need a pilot. More than 90 per cent of helicopter accidents are due to pilot error.”
He said phase one of the industry over the next 10 years will see these aircraft used in the “metropolises of the world”. “If you look at the top 20 largest cities in the world – New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Jakarta, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Istanbul, London etc – it could take two or three hours to get from one side of the city to the other in a car or a taxi,” he said.
“That’s just the first opportunity. You’re looking at an almost boundless marketplace. It could be used in e-commerce as well with the delivery of packages. You have medical evacuations.”
‘Whole new industry’
Mr Slattery said the company wants to “democratise” the aircraft rather than have them become toys for the ultra-wealthy.
“We want to get this to a point where it will cost no more than twice what an Uber would have for the same journey,” he said. “The vast majority of people, given the time saved, will use it. We want to democratise the use of this airplane.
“People will be flying these things literally like they would take a car or a taxi today. It will become ubiquitous and the price point will reflect that. It will be available to the mass market.”
Mr Slattery said he did not yet know what companies will lease the aircraft from Avolon, but that traditional airlines “will unquestionably be using these”.
“It’s a whole new industry,” he said, “but clearly the airlines are going to embrace this, as they did yesterday, with American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic being our co-launch customers.
“This is going to act as a catalyst for a bunch of entrepreneurs around the world who will figure out how to commercialise the use of these aircraft, and Avolon and Ireland are going to be front and centre of that new industry.
“If we take a 20-30 year perspective, this urban air mobility is the next big thing, and I think Ireland can position itself as a centre of excellence globally: the intellectual property, the thinking, the commercialisation strategies etc.”
Avolon, through its newly incorporated affiliate Avolon-e, will become the first customer for the VA-X4 and will order aircraft valued at $1.25 billion with delivery commencing in late 2024. It has an option to acquire additional aircraft up to a value of $750 million.