Seletar Airport eyes future as a flying taxi hub

Plans for flying taxis to be operational at Seletar are pretty immediate - as soon as 2024. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Just 20 minutes north-west of Singapore's Changi Airport - regularly voted the world's best - is Seletar Airport, the Republic's second, and far less well-known, airfield. It is predominantly where the super rich land in their private jets. It is also where the future of aviation could be taking off.

The neighbourhood, more known for its laid-back cafes in restored British-era colonial buildings and sleepy fishing villages, is positioning itself as a hub for flying taxis. Singapore has already signed two agreements with advanced air mobility start-ups Skyports and Volocopter that may convert the ageing aerodrome into a vertiport, or an airport where the aerial devices take off and land vertically, Jetsons-style.

It is not some way off dream, either. Plans for flying taxis to be operational at Seletar are pretty immediate - as soon as 2024 - and the airport, or vertiport, could serve as a global model for what the future of mobility may look like.

Recent interest in so-called eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles) has been immense. Electric cabs stole the limelight at this year's Singapore Air Show in February, with Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes of AirAsia fame placing an order to rent at least 100 of them from Vertical Aerospace. Carriers including American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways have also ordered scores of eVTOLs.

"Singapore is, and continues to strive to be, the world leader in mobility, and this development is another brick in that wall," said Mr Sunny Xi, a principal at consultancy Oliver Wyman's transportation and services practice. "This is more than simply solving traffic on roads. Singapore has all the right ingredients to test, learn and scale both the mobility adoption and the business to then export it across the world."

But flying taxis - until recently the stuff of science fiction - have one big and crucial hurdle to clear. Not one has been approved by regulators anywhere to actually take to the skies with passengers onboard. The authorities can take years to approve new technology and it is only recently that flying taxis have taken the giant leap from being a concept to a reality. Regulators are now examining the safety of such vehicles before green-lighting them for commercial operations.

Companies like Volocopter say it is just a matter of time, and Asia will play a large role in eVTOL adoption.

"In Asia, you have a high concentration of mega cities that you don't have in any other region," Mr Christian Bauer, Volocopter's chief commercial officer, said in an interview. "This new industry is innovative. It is good for inhabitants, for tourists, and also for cross-border connections to relieve the pain of congestion."

Volocopter, which predicts $4.2 billion of cumulative economic benefits to Singapore and as many as 1,300 local jobs by 2030 from the industry, is showcasing its aircraft in the city-state later this month to increase public awareness. It has also talked up the "political benefits", including reduced car ownership and the ability of Singapore to position itself as a torchbearer for the rest of Asia.

Fares for passengers are expected to start at about 40 per cent of the cost of a helicopter, according to Mr Bauer. That could drop to around the price of a premium taxi within five to six years, he said.

"This makes it interesting for anyone who can afford a taxi to take a Volocopter instead," Mr Bauer said, adding that the company's service will be "very silent compared with a helicopter".

"You will not hear it at all," he said.

Volocopter's backers include Chinese automaking powerhouse Zhejiang Geely Holding Group as well as German logistics firm DB Schenker and the venture capital arm of chipmaker Intel. Skyports is supported by Japan's Kanematsu and Goodman Group in Australia, as well as Mr Ken Allen, the chief executive of DHL eCommerce.

A VoloCity, an urban air taxi by Volocopter, at the Viva Technology conference in Paris on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

For all the behind-the-scenes work, the burgeoning revolution under way at Seletar is not visible yet.

On a recent visit, the airfield was littered with private and small trainer planes, with a few bigger jets in hangars undergoing repairs. Patrons at an aviation-themed bistro overlooking the runway were mostly expats or locals with jobs at nearby plane maintenance companies. Inside the terminal, staff were busy guiding a handful of passengers onto a flight to Subang Jaya in Malaysia - one of the only two commercial services operating from the airport.

JTC Corporation is bullish on Seletar's scope. The broader area surrounding the airstrip, called Seletar Aerospace Park, is the centrepiece of Singapore's aerospace industry cluster and home to around 60 companies spanning businesses from engine makers to research and training facilities.

"The future of urban air mobility is exciting and presents far-reaching possibilities for Seletar Aerospace Park," Ms Lim Ai Ting, JTC's director of aerospace and marine cluster, said. "We are currently in discussions with various parties on new partnerships. This will add to the park's vibrancy and also benefit the aerospace industry ecosystem."

With about 82,500 passenger eVTOLs expected to be operational in the Asia-Pacific by 2050, the region will account for around half the global market, according to a study by Rolls-Royce Holdings and consultancy Roland Berger released earlier this year. The flying devices could be used as airport shuttles, for tourist flights or inter-city travel, flying as far as 250km on a single charge, according to the study.

With the Republic's "high-rise and high-density landscape, and highly efficient domestic transport systems, the vision in Singapore is focused first on tourist flights and, ultimately, regional connectivity", said Mr Tay Yun Yuan, Skyports' head of Asia-Pacific.

Seletar, with its integrated cluster of aerospace-related facilities, is "the perfect setting for the holistic development of an industry as new as advanced air mobility", he said.

"The good thing is, a couple of years back, we were approaching cities," said Volocopter's Mr Bauer. "Now cities are approaching Volocopter because they see the demand, they see this revolutionary change, and they want to be there. Singapore is high on the list."

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