“The age of aerial taxis is here”, proclaimed the Wall Street Journal. In 1951.
Today the promise of hailing a flying cab still hovers over the horizon.
There’s been a recent uplift in air taxi announcements – proposals for a flying rideshare service in Melbourne from Uber Air, then Eve and Microflite and a partnership between Wisk Aero and Queensland mayors to deliver air taxis in time for the 2032 Olympics.
Governments and industry alike promote the idea as “transformative” even “revolutionary”.
But the decades-old dream of the air taxi has flown before.
In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, flying taxi services were transporting passengers across US, European and Australian cities, albeit with jet-fuelled helicopters rather than electric aircraft.
Initially, these scheduled air taxi operations flourished, airlifting hundreds of thousands of passengers.
In California, between 1954 and 1971, Los Angeles Airways (LAA) carried 1.6 million passengers. The helicopter airline flew between LA’s airport, city centre and more than thirty destinations including suburbs like Long Beach, Orange County and San Bernardino.
Librarian and transport historian Charles P. Hobbs catalogues the rise and fall of LAA in his book, The Hidden History of Transportation in Los Angeles.
When LAA’s helicopter services started, he says, “it was new. It was modern. It was space age. It was the future.”
Passengers flew in Sikorsky choppers carrying up to twenty-eight people. LAA’s sales pitch offered to cut travel times in half, suiting business travellers commuting between LA’s sprawling suburbs and the airport, he says.
As Hobbs’ book records, at its peak in 1967, LAA was transporting 396,000 passengers each year, including some 30,000 a month on its most popular route between the airport and Anaheim, near Disneyland.
Melbourne too had its own helicopter taxis.
Just like the airport-to-city routes anticipated as early use cases for advanced air mobility, operators Trans-Australia Airlines and Ansett-ANA offered connecting flights from a floating helipad on the Yarra River to Essendon Airport, then the city’s main airport.
The services carried more than 50,000 passengers between 1956 and 1980 in two and four-seater Hiller and Bell helicopters, according to the Civil Aviation Historical Society.
Like LAA, Melbourne’s service was mainly used by business people. Owner of Ansett-ANA, Sir Reginald Ansett was a frequent flier, commuting daily between his home in Mount Eliza, southeast of Melbourne to the city.
Interstate travellers arriving in Melbourne were given the option to ride a connecting helicopter service to the city. The trip took seven minutes and cost roughly one tenth of the average weekly wage for men at the time.
It was an “unusual airport transfer”, Michael Foster told the Canberra Times choppering over Moonee Valley, Royal Park and the Spencer Street rail yards “on a dulling afternoon with rain cloud and smog vying for control”.
From the ‘50s to today, little has changed in the advertised benefits of air taxis, with proposals suggesting faster, affordable commuting.
In Up and Over, a monochrome motion picture promoting LAA’s service, a baritone voiceover declares, “city streets and jammed highways add hours to a trip often wiping out the time saved by jet travel, not to mention the wear and tear on the nerves.
“The solution is to go up and over the crowded conditions below… to use the broad highway in the sky.”
Fly-forward to 2023 and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority asks us to, “imagine a world where instead of driving to get where you’re going, you head to a nearby vertiport or skyport and board an automated vehicle that takes off vertically and flies you where you want to go.”
The Federal Government expects air passenger services will reduce travel times and congestion.
But history and experience suggest these lofty claims may lack substance.
LAA founder Charles Belinn promoted helicopter transport as a faster, cheaper alternative to public spending on new roads and railways.
Yet, according to Hobbs, despite significant public subsidies, the airway’s fares remained much higher than a bus or train. The longest route – a 32-minute flight from the airport to San Bernardino – cost US$10 (US$80 today).
When Uber Elevate (now Joby Aviation) launched its first iteration of aerial ridesharing, an on-demand helicopter shuttle between New York city and the airport, the New York Post tested its claims of fast and affordable transport.
They raced post-haste to the airport: one by public transport (US$7.75; 1 hr 22 min) another by Uber car and ‘copter (US$230.67; 1 hr 25 min). The subway “proved three minutes swifter at a sliver of the price”.
Adam Cohen is a senior research manager at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, researching innovative transportation technologies, including advanced air mobility.
Cohen co-authored a paper published in IEEE, tracing the history of air taxis – from the “plane cars” of the early 20th Century, to the helicopter services of the ‘50s to ‘80s, re-emergence of on-demand aviation, and beyond to an advanced air mobility future.
The long history of the air taxi begs the question, why do we still regard the idea as futuristic?
Cohen explains its partly the technical difficulty of delivering on the concept.
“To be able to fly, or conduct operations that are high density, highly complex, in urban areas at low altitudes, is still a highly technical, highly advanced system. And we’re just beginning to develop the technologies to kind of enable that and to be able to unlock that, and to do so safely.”
Another aspect is the emergence of new technologies, electric and hydrogen aircraft, renewing interest in urban aviation.
There are more than 300 innovative aircraft under development, Cohen says. The majority are electric, and designed for vertical take-off and landing. Some are hydrogen fuelled, or short take-off and landing. Designs include both crewed and un-crewed vehicles.
Professor Rico Merkert, an expert in transport economics from the University of Sydney agrees the main difference lies with the new aircraft technology. “It’s electric, so there are no emissions. And it’s a lot quieter”.
Cohen’s research suggests the short-to-medium future could involve air shuttle services on specific routes, similar in many ways to those historic helicopter airlines.
So, what happened to all the helicopter taxis?
Cohen cites two main reasons for their decline.
Firstly, airlines rise and fall on economic merits, he says.
In the US, helicopter airlines were propped up by airmail subsidies, which were later removed. A buoyant economy in the 80s, saw a fleeting return. Like Trump Air flying between Wall Street and LaGuardia airport connecting to Trump Shuttle flights.
Economic reasons also grounded Melbourne helicopter taxis in 1980, when unable to compete with cheaper – land-based – transport.
LAA’s service terminated following two of the deadliest helicopter accidents in US history.
The Paramount crash on May 24, 1968 killed 23 people.
Witnesses reported hearing a “loud pop” before the twin-rotor Sikorsky chopper “plunged to earth”. One of the rotor blades spun off, slicing through the corrugated sheet metal roof of a nearby manufacturing plant. “Bodies of the victims were stacked in tiers in the street nearby”, The Canberra Times reported.
Soon after, on 16 August, 1968, another crash in suburban Compton killed all 21 people on board including the grandson of LAA’s president.
In New York, too, there was a “a very prominent incident involving metal fatigue, on top of the Pan American building, that resulted in a few fatalities,” Cohen says.
“That incident gave the perception that landing helicopters on top of buildings was not safe. It took many years for urban helicopter services to come back in any kind of notable way after that incident.”
Even when the technology is ready, there remain significant challenges to be overcome before urban air taxi services can be rolled out at scale.
Merkert says air taxis are unlikely to provide mass transport, and safety regulation will be fundamental. Any early crashes would likely be detrimental to the industry, he says.
Cohen says there are questions remaining about social equity, environment and amenity, privacy and security, as well as weather challenges. Also, crucially, safety.
History holds important lessons for today’s tech companies working to re-boot air taxi services, Cohen says.
“Safety really has to be paramount. Not only because it’s important, but it also plays a key role in both public perception and the business model of these services.”