The July 4 fireworks display in Manhattan last week generated its usual buzz online, with tons of photos of the display from viewing spots in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey. But one element of the online chatter around the day’s performance should be particularly noteworthy — disconcertingly so — to the eVTOL and air taxi community: complaints from the public about the quantity of helicopters near the performance attempting to score the best views for their passengers.
As this piece in the New York Post noted, the helicopters began swarming the vicinity of the display and quickly became seemingly part of the show itself. “Tempers flared as unhappy fireworks watchers took to Twitter to complain about the mosquito-esque disturbance, which took flight about 10 minutes before the 25-minute pyrotechnics show ignited at 9:20 p.m.,” the piece noted. “The Post’s own Karol Markowicz tweeted, ‘There are so many helicopters circling over the fireworks in NYC that it’s like an alien invasion.’”
This observation, and many others like it cited in the piece, paint an ominous picture of what the eVTOL and air taxi community might be up against in its effort to secure public support for the operations. After all, if New York City’s reaction to what one video suggested was around 15 helicopters in the air at the same time is immediate and resentful, how will that change when 30, 50, or even 100 or more air taxis are flying about and urban center? The question is hugely important for the nascent air taxi industry, as public support will likely be a major factor in municipalities granting or declining permission for new providers to commence operations in their cities.
Granted, there are a few mitigating factors in this specific case. For one, New York City is uniquely sensitive to the issue. There’s been long-standing opposition to tourist helicopter flights among the population there, especially in the wake of a fatal crash in the East River last year that claimed five lives. FlyNYON, the promoter of that flight and the ticket seller, appears to have had the lion’s share of hovering grandstands last week during the fireworks. The company has a long and often dubious history of flying tourists around the city on these photo tours, with New York senator Chuck Schumer calling for an end to such flights.
Also, while the swarming helicopters generated a notably distracting presence, eVTOL aircraft promise to be far quieter than their turbine-powered predecessors. That benefit will fade, of course, as the numbers in use increase — meaning more and more will be in the air at the same time, amping up the literal volume in addition to the figurative, regardless of how much quieter the aircraft might be individually. But there’s also an element of visual clutter in play here, which many of the New Yorkers seemed to be mostly reacting to in their Twitter tirades. Will skies filled with eVTOL aircraft spark similar reactions, and thus resentment?
It’s a fair question, and one the industry will need to proactively contend with. There seems to be an assumption lurking in the eVTOL community that most people will tolerate the buzzing aircraft if the benefit becomes pervasive and available to all. That may be true, but given that the stepping-stone to electric air taxi success will increasingly be through the use of conventional helicopters, it may be hard to maintain that goodwill long enough for eVTOL aircraft to supplant the turbines. In any case, several tweets immediately gravitated to “rich people” flying above the masses, a resentment that will undoubtedly resurface once air taxis start flying. Even as the benefit of the system grows, it will likely never reach such terrific volumes that it will successfully leverage societal benefit as a card to play in currying public acceptance. At least, not in a city that moves millions in the subway, trains, and buses every day.
What’s the answer? There may actually not be one — it’s an intractable problem that cannot be simply wished or even argued away. There’s an inevitability to the fact that aircraft draw the eye immediately, particularly against the usually pristine blue skies or even nighttime blackness, and that visual clutter will always be a problem — a pain point for cities weighing the benefits of a system that will unavoidably impact relatively few in its population.
That said, to date almost all of the chatter about air taxi operations has centered on urban locations. It might behoove the industry to begin immediately shifting the conversation away from the likes of Manhattanites shuttling between airports toward a more distributed vision of air taxi operations, one in which suburb-to-suburb — which in many metropolitan areas poses equally dismal congestion problems — is just as important as cross-town traffic, and in which smaller cities and even small towns are just as important as the pulsating metropolises that every player seems to be targeting. If the aircraft are coming and going to and from more places and serving a wider variety of roles, it will be less likely that they’ll swarm cities and become eyesores to everyone on the ground. It may also go a long way to helping the industry get off the ground in the first place.