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✈️ #20: Why sociology matters in Regional Air Mobility

“The history of transportation will always be social history.”

This is what Adam Gopnik wrote in the article "How to Quit Cars", published in The New Yorker last month. Holding college degrees in both aviation and history, I instantly agreed with the statement. The way we move around is deeply rooted in our social structures and behavior.

While many experts focus on the technical challenges of electric aviation and electric Regional Air Mobility (eRAM), I believe that these social structures pose the biggest challenge for the success of this new, sustainable form of transportation.

⏱️ In short

  • How we view and use different types of transportation is deeply rooted in social structures. The societal view on aviation is increasingly negative because of its adverse impact on the environment.

  • The growth of eRAM will increase the number of flights, which could lead to social resistance, even though these types of flights are significantly less harmful to the environment.

  • Developers of eRAM systems will need to make an effort to engage society in their plans and inform people about how this new type of aviation will impact their lives. Without this engagement, this operating model cannot be sustained.

Want to know more? Scroll some more ⬇️

In issue #6 of this newsletter I wrote that eRAM will compete in a market that is currently dominated by ground transportation, like cars, busses, trucks and trains. A combination of both private and public transportation.

And Gopnik states that the image these types of transportation have are buried in the trenches of our society: “Public transit is now the cause of the reforming classes, and the car their villain. The car is the consumer economy on wheels: atomizing, competitive, inhuman—and implicitly racist, hiving people off to segregated communities—while the subway and the train are communal zendos. Good people ride bicycles and buses; bad people ride in ever-bigger cars. Capitalism, not Dean Moriarty, is in the front seat.”

While air travel is not limited to car lovers only, when using this definition, aircraft can be categorized as cars. They are increasingly portrayed as an antagonist in stories about the future of transportation. With capitalism in the front seat (and public funding often in the back seat, but that’s a topic for another time).

And that’s a problem for the development of eRAM.

People associate air travel with large polluting aircraft that operate from overcrowded hubs. The airport hub is the core of the hub-and-spoke operating model that made aviation available to millions of people around the world. NASA's calculations reveal that 70% of all U.S. travelers use only 30 airports, despite the fact that there are over 5,000 airports across the United States. This suggests that a significant majority of American passengers are utilizing a mere 0.6% of all available airports for their flights. Making aviation a highly centralized mode of transportation.

When aviation operations are highly concentrated, the noise and air pollution associated with aviation will be as well. The decentalized operating model of eRAM will distribute both the pros and the cons of aviation over the country. Electric aircraft will be more quiet and cleaner than the aircraft we know today, nevertheless, the aircraft will operate in areas where people live who are not used to having aircraft around.

When asking a random person “Are you fine with having more aircraft overflying your house on a regular basis?”, there is a good chance that you’ll get a strong “no” before you can explain how electric aircraft will produce less noise. The social stigma regarding aviation is built on a century of experience and will be difficult to adjust.

Many people have strong Not in my backyard-feelings when it comes to aviation and eRAM will bring aviation to more backyards. The idea is that the total number of flights will increase because relatively small electric aircraft will connect regional airports. Places that are difficult to connect by ground transportation and don’t have the demand for larger commercial jets (passenger or cargo). In addition to the already existing commercial aviation operations. In the long run, battery electric and/or hydrogen-powered aircraft will incrementally take over existing aviation operations. But not anytime soon.

Researching the effects

That is why it is important for organizations associated with developing eRAM systems to engage with society. People need to know how this new mode of transportation will affect every day life. Clear and honest information can prevent complaints and, if you do it well, create customers.

To get that information, research is required. Especially since this type of aviation doesn’t exist at the moment. Fortunately, the FAA has granted $19 million to 14 universities for research to reduce aviation noise pollution, following the US Government Accountability Office's request for better noise management in aviation. The universities are members of the federally funded Aviation Sustainability Center (ASCENT) and will be focusing on projects ranging from noise abatement procedures to assessing noise impact on communities and the environment.

Acoustic modeling of new types of aircraft, such as electric aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, will also be studied. MIT and Pennsylvania State University will focus on developing noise models for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) aircraft and drones, and acoustic models for urban air mobility vehicles respectively. Georgia Tech will examine noise exposure from a large number of uncrewed aircraft systems. Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania will study the correlation between aircraft noise and health conditions, while MIT will also assess whether aircraft noise exposure affects property values.

The conclusions of this research will be used in conversations with communities affected by new types of air travel. Aviation will be different in the future, so developments in aviation must be judged by the technological standards of the future and not the ones from the past. But that’s a difficult message to communicate. Especially considering the social stigma’s associated with transportation as mentioned by Adam Gopnik.

Hopefully research institutes around the world will do the same and together create a solid foundation of knowledge on the societal impact of new types of aviation and how to limit the negative side effects that they create.

In the meantime, publications, like this newsletter, gather all types of information already available regarding the future of aviation to make a head start in the societal acceptance. Change the idea that air travel is only a viable option for long distance travel and that is that is harms the environment. The technology enabling short distance, zero-emission and affordable aviation will be available in the coming years. Now we need the public to hop on board.

Thank you for getting all the way down to the end of this issue of The Second Century of Flight! If you have any questions or suggestions you can contact me via [email protected] or send me a message via LinkedIn.

For more about me, visit giel.io