Imagine your flight lands at Pittsburgh International Airport at rush hour and now you’ve got to navigate the hell that is the Parkway West. What if you could zip above those annoyed motorists and arrive at your destination (anywhere within 100 miles) in less time than it takes to get through the Fort Pitt Tunnel?
The future we were promised by pop culture — moon colonies, jetpacks, time machines — hasn’t come to pass. But we may soon be getting something with more than a whiff of science fiction to it: flying cars, otherwise known as electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs).
Think of eVTOLs as air taxis that take off and land vertically, like helicopters, but fly faster, like small airplanes. They’re also going to be electrically powered, instead of reliant on (expensive and polluting) jet fuel.
Pittsburgh International Airport wants to be ready to accommodate these unusual vehicles as part of the ongoing $1.4 billion Terminal Modernization Program.
“It will happen in the near future,” says Paul Hoback, chief development officer at the Allegheny County Airport Authority. “You have to consider the design and location of vertiports. We’d like to have a plan and be prepared when these eVTOLs come to market.”
The airport just landed $20 million in federal infrastructure money — via the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Biden — and thousands of construction workers are currently working on the terminal project. Construction is expected to be completed in 2025, which also happens to be the date when eVTOL technology is expected to be ready for widespread use.
Sites under consideration for a vertiport include the roof of the airport’s short-term parking lot and the ends of concourses B or C in the airside terminal, Hoback says. Existing helipads can be used as landing sites, and the technology could include the potential for building new ones.
Currently, Florida is the furthest along in adopting this air taxi technology. The country’s first high-speed, electric air mobility hub is planned for Lake Nona, a suburb of Orlando. Lilium, a German aviation company, plans a network of at least 10 zero-carbon vertiports.
“Our transportation infrastructure has not kept up with our growth,” says Justin Braun of the Orlando Economic Partnership. “We could build more roads, but that’s not the answer.”
There are many types of electric aircraft in development that have shown promise, but federal approval has been slow. The eFlyer 2 by Bye Aerospace in Denver was introduced in 2016 and first flew in 2018, but still awaits approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Testing by the FAA is extensive and time-consuming, so it’s hard to say when this technology will really start to take off.