This article, written by Dean Donovan, was originally published on Forbes. Shared on TransportUP with permission.
It’s official: Joby Aviation is buying Uber Elevate. The electric air taxi developer will integrate the Uber Elevate team into its core operation; Uber and Joby will expand their partnership to provide a seamless multi-modal experience and share data on how to provide the right services to customers; and Uber will invest $75 million into Joby, which is on top of its previously undisclosed $50 million investment in Joby’s Series C financing round in January 2020.
This move should support Joby’s strategy of both building a new type of electric aircraft almost entirely in-house as well as operating an airline. Elevate should also give Joby unparalleled competitive and ecosystem intelligence into some of its competitors given that Elevate had engaged Hyundai, Pipistrel, Jaunt Air Mobility, Bell, Signature Flight Support and Chargepoint, among others, as partners in the aerial ride-sharing network that Uber had planned on building. Most industry observers believe that Uber Elevate has built a high-quality group that provides access to arguably the most well-thought through network planning effort in the industry. This could provide benefits in market selection, scale-up and asset utilization of an airline.
Joby is taking a different approach than exists today in most mobility related industries. Over the last few decades, truck and airplane manufacturers have tended to decrease their level of vertical integration to improve capital efficiency and utilize specialized skills developed in the supply chain. Joby is not alone in this break with the recent past. Lilium has also announced plans to forward integrate into air taxi service. Volocopter, the German autonomous aviation company, has launched an air taxi service called Volocity and is aiming to begin operations in Singapore. At the same time, other players in the air mobility space like Jaunt Air Mobility and Bye Aerospace have opted for a leaner, less vertically integrated approach. Will one approach trump the other?
This isn’t going to be cheap
New aircraft programs cost a lot of money to move through certification. On the commercial side of the market, a new narrow-body aircraft could cost $10 billion to $15 billion and can take 10 years or more to bring to market. At the Revolution Aero conference earlier this month, Lee Human of Aerotec, a leading consultancy in this space, suggested that vertically integrated eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) programs would likely require $3 billion to move through certification alone.
Technological innovation creates certification timing and cost risk. eVTOL aircraft will have systems that look fundamentally different than most of today’s small aircraft including, eventually, the provision for autonomous operation. The Eclipse 500, a program that pushed the edge of the technological envelope to pioneer the very light jet (VLJ) category, has become emblematic of the risks of a technology forward approach. The program started in 1998 and only received certification in mid-2006 partially due to a requirement to re-engine the aircraft mid-stream. The first deliveries came in 2007, almost 9 years after the start of the program. The company ultimately ran out of capital due to cost overruns associated with the delays and the 2008 recession.
Setting up a scale commercial carrier will add another layer of capital needs on top of the certification costs of the aircraft. JetBlue raised $128 million to finance its start-up with two planes, and Volaris, now the largest low-cost carrier in Mexico, raised a similar amount to start with four aircraft. However, new commercial operators have the advantage of a well-developed leasing market that allows them to finance new aircraft at attractive prices. They can also slot right into the existing commercial aviation airport infrastructure with limited initial capital investment.
Starting an eVTOL-based air taxi service at a similar scale could cost much more. Given the relatively small capacity of these new eVTOL aircraft (typically four seats or less), to have the same seat capacity as JetBlue or Volaris on start-up one of these new operations might need 70 to 140 aircraft. At $1 million per aircraft that would be $70 million to $140 million in acquisition costs. Given the unknown lifecycle of these new aircraft, financing that via an affordable leasing program seems unlikely. Aircraft acquisition only represents a part of the total expense, which will include start-up expenses, inventory, route development and other overhead costs. In addition, these air taxi services will need to find new investment for charging infrastructure, terminal infrastructure, maintenance facilities etc. Growing the model would require even more capital for aircraft and for developing new routes, which can take 9-12 months to ramp to profitability in commercial aviation.
Put this all together and it may take $4 billion or more to fully develop a vertically integrated business in the UAM space. That business case will come with potentially high variability in terms of timing and cost that investors will need to plan around. Of course, the rewards of pioneering what Morgan Stanley predicts could become a $1.5 trillion market could make those risks more than worthwhile.
Historical Precedents: “We are the Uber of Aviation…”
Elevate ensured that the UAM space lives in a giant shadow cast by the analogy of Uber’s auto ride-sharing model. Uber took a cottage industry, the taxi business, professionalized and modernized it. Ride-sharing models utilized a contract workforce that knows how to drive and brings its own assets. It took the suboptimal taxi user experience and improved it dramatically, while simultaneously reducing the cost of service significantly through smart network management. Not surprisingly, these factors led to the rapid growth of demand and an asset-light business model. It was expensive to build out, but the operating leverage is less than a model that has to buy or finance the assets it took to operate.
Uber tried to build a similar on-demand model for the world of aviation, where it quickly became clear that regulation, labor relations and asset ownership conditions will create a different, less favorable business model. Some companies have attempted ride-sharing style models in aviation and have run afoul of the FAA. Aviation requires a highly skilled workforce that tends to unionize and scales slowly. The low passenger to pilot ratio will create a pilot shortage if the UAM markets scale in a significant way. These potential bottlenecks have led most competitors to set autonomous operation goals to enable scalability and manage costs. Carriers must buy their own assets or lease them, if financing is available, and take responsibility for their operations. As a result, vertically integrated UAM carriers will have asset intensive operations.
While it may seem a departure today, aviation and aerospace were vertically integrated in the era where airmail contracts guaranteed significant volume at set pricing. Boeing purchased aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney in 1929 and had started United Airlines before subsequently growing it via merger. The guaranteed volumes and pricing from airmail contracts limited Boeing’s exposure to the high levels of operating leverage this strategy created. In fact, those guarantees were so lucrative they led to scandal and eventually the Airmail Act of 1934. That law prohibited aircraft manufacturers from owning airlines and forced Boeing to divest United Airlines and to the spin-out of what eventually became United Technologies (including Pratt and Whitney). Although regional aviation receives some Federal money via the Essential Air Service program, these tend to serve poorer rural areas, not the premium services wealthy urban areas the UAM companies plan to target initially. Unlike Boeing in the 1930s, today’s vertical integrators will need to create their own stable, attractively priced demand to cover their operating leverage.
In contrast, Delta started as a company to solve a specific use case — the boll weevil infestation of the early 1920s. The company built aircraft for crop dusting and then built a crop-dusting aviation service to solve the problem. Designing a solution for a completely new use case feels analogous to the challenge that Lilium, Volocopter and Joby face today. Trying to solve the use case end-to-end via a tightly coordinated team could simplify the challenge. In addition, it is not clear that Lilium could find an air taxi airline customer for its UAM aircraft even if it wanted to do so. The carrier models that could buy and operate these aircraft simply don’t exist today, nor would most airlines feel comfortable operating this type of equipment on their own. To quote David Merrill, CEO of Elroy Air, who has considered building his own freight carrier in addition to the development of the company’s Chaparral autonomous cargo aircraft, “our commercial logistics customers understand the enormous value of our autonomous aircraft in expanding express middle-mile capacity, but many don’t want the added complexity of operating it in the early years.” (My firm DiamondStream Partners is an investor in Elroy Air.)
The Benefits And Risks Of Making An All-In Bet
Ultimately, aviation models usually depend on two things for success: directness of routing to save time, and cost to produce the service (of which the biggest driver is asset utilization). The Elevate team combined with the Uber Partnership, can help Joby significantly in both respects. Via its modeling efforts around UAM network optimization Elevate’s insights can help reduce costs by improving asset utilization of the carrier model. Its practical experience with Uber Copter into how to integrate ride-sharing networks into UAM services to create seamless multi-modal experiences should cut time off customer trips. Based on what we know about stimulation of aviation demand, those two value-adds should help grow the market significantly.
Set against those benefits, stand a few substantial risks. Unlike Boeing’s vertical integration strategy of the 1920s and 1930s, new UAM carriers will find it hard to predict volume early on. Cars represent a formidable competitor. They cost about 37 cents a passenger mile at average occupancy — probably a tenth or less of what UAM services will initially cost. Commuters are highly sensitive to transportation costs and a 22-mile commute each way might cost $130/week via car including parking. At $2/mile, which is the cost for an Uber ride-share today, the same commute would cost about $440/week. At $4/mile, a more realistic initial price for UAM services, it would cost closer to $880/week, although it could be lower in the case of someone who works remotely most days. In an environment where increasing numbers of people work from home and congestion eases, the time advantage of a multi-modal trip based on flights may also decline.
In addition, competition from new forms of fixed-wing aircraft could limit UAM volume, particularly in the early years before urban vertiport infrastructure build outs. Fixed-wing airplanes retrofitted with hybrid-electric propulsion systems should become available about the same time as eVTOL aircraft. These fixed-wing planes could transport passengers at lower cost than the initial eVTOL vehicles due to the greater efficiency of fixed-wing flight, the ability to use existing fueling infrastructure, and their larger number of seats. These types of operations could also scale more easily due to the higher passenger to pilot ratio. In commercial aviation, operators that fly smaller, less efficient aircraft often find themselves in the role of developing routes for operators with lower cost, higher capacity planes.
A third concern involves unionization. Given the scale of operations that UAM businesses plan to develop, this industry will most likely have unions that look more like the unions in the regional aviation or the commercial aviation industry than the less unionized charter industry. Pilots unions tend to negotiate contracts that increase the operating leverage of today’s commercial airlines, although some low-cost carriers have variable pay union contracts. As the demand for pilots from electric aviation growth increases, pilot shortages could give unions increased leverage over these businesses. More importantly for the vertical integrators, the unions will probably express reservations about the pace and safety of the transition to autonomous flight technology that the UAM companies will depend on to push costs down and stimulate demand.
Finally, this strategy could create some channel conflict between the vertical integration plays and pure play carriers. Uber Elevate comes complete with a valuable network of partners. Many of these, like the relationship with Signature Flight Support, should translate seamlessly into Joby’s vertically integrated model. However, why should the airframe partners want to support the network of one of their largest and best financed competitors? Even with a carrier strategy, none of the airframe companies with vertical integration plans will have the capital to roll-out these networks globally right away. It will just cost too much. If it is demand and not vehicles in short supply, non-affiliated airlines may choose to use vehicles from manufacturers that don’t compete in their core business.
Partnership strategies can help mitigate some of the risks from operating leverage and labor relations that vertical integration will create. Today, the major commercial carriers purchase capacity from the regional carriers instead of owning and operating those fleets. WheelsUp had a similar kind of operating arrangement with Gama in private charter. While these arrangements certainly have their advantages, the operating leverage will live somewhere in the vertically integrated system and the partners will probably not want to accept the operating leverage without some type of guaranteed volume contract.
Playing To Win
In the end, UAM represents an entirely new transportation model that requires new technology, infrastructure, systems and regulatory frameworks to deliver a cost-effective transport solution with direct connections and a good customer experience. Vertical integration strategies give Joby, Lilium, and Volocopter more control over the levers required to launch in the industry, which could give them, and by extension the entire industry, a better chance of large-scale customer adoptions. However, this strategy also comes with far greater capital requirements, the daunting task of becoming the best at multiple steps of the value chain, and the prospect of channel conflict that slows scaling in their non-priority markets.
The Lilium, Joby, and Volocopter carrier strategies suggest they believe proprietary volume will ramp up quickly. These companies face a chicken and egg problem: To stimulate demand they need the scale, but to pay for the capital required to grow demand also requires scale. When demand is uncertain, playing to win by increasing operating leverage takes vision, courage and deep pockets.