PARIS • Airbus and Boeing, watch out - one of the world's largest aircraft owners says passenger planes could see their wings clipped by the rapid spread of flying taxi start-ups.
Commercial air travel already faces competition from high-speed trains in parts of the world.
But the head of Irish aircraft leasing firm Avolon said competition would shift skywards as it invested up to US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in aerial shuttles.
Avolon is among the launch customers for up to 1,000 electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft being developed by Britain's Vertical Aerospace, which plans to go public through a merger with a blank-cheque firm.
German air shuttle start-up Lilium said in March that it would float on the United States stock market via a similar process.
The deals reflect growing interest in battery-powered aircraft that can take off and land vertically, offering a new way for travellers to beat traffic and hop between cities.
Vertical's VA-X4 has a range of 193km but that could be extended further, Avolon chief executive Domhnal Slattery said.
"The challenge for incumbent (plane makers) is if the range can extend to 400 miles to 500 miles (644km to 805km), what is the implication for traditional narrow-bodies?" he said.
Asked if the vehicles for four passengers and a pilot could take business from much larger commercial planes, he said: "Eventually, yes, of course. This is the inevitable future."
Plane makers have themselves invested in such projects.
Avolon has placed a firm order for 310 eVTOLs worth US$1.25 billion and 190 options worth US$750 million, he said. They will join an owned or managed fleet of 568 passenger aircraft all the way up to the 396-seat Boeing 777-300ER.
Mr Slattery said Avolon has not decided how to deploy the air taxis, whose relatively short product development cycles mark a shift for leasing companies used to long-term jet investments.
"We could partner with airlines, we could establish our own entities... around the world, we could partner with helicopter operators," he added.
"I think it is going to take a lot of different forms over time. But the technology is here and we are going to lead commercialisation of it with zero-emission credentials."
Vertical Aerospace says eVTOL aircraft can help the industry to meet carbon reduction goals through zero emissions and electrical power, where possible, derived from renewable energy.
But experts say questions remain over the timing of safety certification, which eVTOL suppliers expect as early as 2024.