The future of the Waterloo Municipal Airport could be grounded by politics or could soar because of an “electric bus in the air.”
Meanwhile, look up in the air. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a flying car! Small personal aircraft soon could overtake the self-driving car as the next cool thing.
In March, the Trump administration budget proposed eliminating the $175 million Essential Air Service program for rural airports. Waterloo was granted an annual $945,546 subsidy for its 13 American Airlines weekly flights in 2014.
EAS serves 173 smaller cities in largely rural markets, including nearly 50 in Alaska. Part of its budget comes from overflight fees the Federal Aviation Administration charges foreign aircraft using U.S. air space, and the rest is from taxpayers.
We doubt Congress will go along with Trump — nearly all public transportation requires some form of subsidy. While the busier airports should maintain their allocations, others (notably “boutique airports” near cities) could be susceptible to cuts.
Regardless of that outcome, revolutionary new aircraft technology eventually may fly to the rescue.
Zunum Aero recently announced its intent to manufacture a short-flight, inexpensive and quiet electric hybrid aircraft carrying 10 to 50 passengers. Named after a Mayan hummingbird known for its speed and efficiency, the Washington state company is backed by a partnership including subsidiaries of Boeing and JetBlue.
The Zunum jet would fly routes up to 700 miles with fares reduced by 40 to 80 percent in a quiet aircraft producing 80 percent fewer emissions. A small range-extending generator would complement batteries. The goal is eliminating fuel costs entirely.
“Think of it as an electric bus in the air,” said Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures. According to the Washington Post, Zunum claims a trip will feel like “a cross between private corporate air travel and hopping on a bus.”
It hopes to take advantage of regional airports, while convincing people to forgo trips under 500 miles usually taken by car (95 percent of such travel, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation) and get them off trains and buses as well.
Zunum has competition.
The Post reported Massachusetts-based Wright Electric has plans for “zero-emissions electric airliners designed to save money and our planet” in the next decade — contingent on battery technology.
Meanwhile, “air taxis” and personal cars are taking off.
In Germany, Lilium debuted its VTOL jet, a vertical take-off-and-land “air taxi,” a winged aircraft that rises straight up, hovers and then heads off. Backed by investors, including the founder of Skype, the company plans on making a Lilium Jet that seats five.
Airbus, the European aerospace consortium, hopes to produce its two-seat, all-electric E-Fan 2.0 — capable of staying in the air for 90 minutes — later this year. In 2015, its all-electric E-Fan 1.1 crossed the English Channel in 37 minutes.
Last year, Ehang, a Chinese drone company, debuted its all-electric 184 “quadcopter” — 4-feet, 11-inches high and 440-pounds. The 184 stood for one passenger, eight rotors and four arms. It could fly 10 miles at 62 mph with a maximum altitude of 11,480 feet. Its battery power lasts only 23 minutes. Passengers must weigh less than 264 pounds.
The New York Times recently reported Kitty Hawk, a small Silicon Valley company backed by Google founder Larry Page and others, has unveiled a flying car, looking “like something Luke Skywalker would have built out of spare parts … an open-seated, 220-pound contraption with room for one person, powered by eight battery-powered propellers that howled as loudly as a speedboat.”
Four years ago, Terrafugia, a U.S. company, unveiled Transition, a semiautonomous “car/plane” hybrid with foldable wings that would sell for more than $300,000 with a flight range of 450 miles and an optimum road speed of 70 mph.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration categorized it as an off-road vehicle. Anything that takes flight, though, should be governed by rules in the air. And these new aircraft should keep regulators busy.
Zunum is confident its small-size regional aircraft can circumvent Transportation Safety Administration rules on baggage check-in and security, much like trains and buses. But as potential targets of terrorists, that may not pass muster.
What will be the rules of the road and air for car-like planes and “air taxis”? Can they be parked in a neighborhood garage and take off and land on the street? How will air space be shared, particularly with commercial flights?
Regulators were slow to act and seemingly confounded by drones. The time to start developing new rules is now.
One thing is certain: Traffic overhead will become much more congested in the not-so-distant future.