On-Demand Air Travel, The Sky's The Limit?

In 2010 Uber launched its now-famous taxi service in San Francisco. In the years since Uber has grown into a global taxi market disrupter and has expanded its service into food delivery via Uber eats.

The reason for Uber's success is simple - They identified then removed customer pain points from the taxi user journey. They are making themselves a far more attractive offer than their competitors.

While I love the convenience of Uber, their proposition isn't as groundbreaking as Lilium's [www.Lilium.com] who are aiming to "Enabling a world where anyone can fly anywhere, anytime" by creating an uber-like service for air travel.

There is something about flying that is hard-wired into being human. Our desire to fly runs deep and is something that appears to have always existed, with Ancient Greek legends telling stories of men strapping on birdlike wings and throwing themselves from great heights.

Since these early attempts at flight, we've created kites, balloons, gliders, helicopters, planes and have even flown off the face of our planet and landed on the moon. The actual moon!

As amazing as this is (and it is incredible) we've not yet delivered the personal freedom element of flight that we as humans seem to yearn for. Where is the Jetson stuff we were promised for decades?

The solutions we have are not an everyday solution. They won't help me with my day to day needs, like getting to a friends house, restaurant or work.

Ok so yes, the reality is it is possible to hire a helicopter to fly me to work and back, but it's not a reality I and most of us can afford. For most of us, our dream of flying as free as a bird is unattainable.

But, for how long? People like Lilium are seeking to change this by applying an on-demand mobility model to flight.


How would Lilium work?

Let's fast forward a few years. It's now 2025, you've got somewhere to be. Open up your Lilium app and hail an electric plane, hop in and travel up to 300km in 60 minutes.

With this type of technology on its way, there are lots of industries, business models and brands that should be worried.

An alternative to large public transport infrastructure projects?

If we use an example from the UK, with Lilium, you could travel from London to Birmingham in just over 30 minutes.

Even if we exclude all the time wasted waiting for a train to be available, that's circa 20 minutes faster than the proposed HS2 speed, and if they are true to their word Lilium will not only get you there quicker, they'll do it far cheaper.

Some reports suggest HS2 could cost £43billion and is estimated to go live in 2026, one year after Lilium projects their service to go live. This is a significant investment that may be obsolete even before the first train makes it onto the track. With far less physical disruption and public funds invested, Lilium could provide a better solution.

An alternative to buses, trains, trams, taxis, tubes, rickshaws?

If the costs are as reasonable as promised, which would you rather do? Fly or drive? Fly or get on a bus? Sit in traffic or fly over it? Get close to your destination, or land on it?

While it certainly won't be everyone's cup to tea and there will be times where alternatives provide a more sensible solution, on-demand air travel has the potential to take a significant piece of the public transport pie.

An alternative food delivery service?

With services like Deliveroo and UberEats, my menu is limited by geography. However, with on-demand air transportation, faster speeds over greater distances, suddenly I can get a takeaway from another city and still have it arrive piping hot.

Creating social mobility

Air travel makes the world a smaller place, significantly reducing journey times in this way would mean a massive reduction in commute times meaning talent pools for employers suddenly increase dramatically at the same time as opportunities for employees.

The same benefits can be applied to education and will, of course, impact where people choose to live.

Improving emergency transportation

The technology part is the easy bit when you compare this against the policy changes that governments will need to make for this type of transport to function. However, the work Lilium and others will need to do with governments on enabling this type of technology will have knock-on effects, including allowing emergency services to make use of this type of transportation.

As an example getting paramedics to people faster and people faster to the hospital in time of need will save lives. Who doesn't want that?

Topple tourism giants

If we take a look at who owns air travel today, we need to look at airlines. If I were any airline today, I'd be investing in businesses like Lilium. While today the distance a solution like Lilium can fly and the speed it can travel at is far lower than a commercial passenger jet. This will change; it’s just a matter of time.

As a passenger and a human I have growing concerns about what my choice of holiday is doing to the environment with recent calls for air travellers to pay carbon charges to offset emissions, I wonder whether more of us will be willing to trade off our travel distances and speed against the environmental impact. With this in mind, Lilium’s electric solution looks even more attractive.

Just as Uber addressed the pains of taxi customers, Lilium is doing the same for air travel. If we look at some of the anxieties that currently exist around air travel, the on-demand air travel model has solutions.

• “I’m not happy with the environmental cost of air travel” - We’re electric so are better for the environment.

• "I hate to travel to and from an airport" - So don’t, we'll pick you up and drop you off much closer to home or where ever is most convenient for you.

• "Get me to my destination as quickly as possible" - No need to wait in line, no need to wait for other people, hop on, hop off.

• "I have to fly on an airlines schedule" - We'll fly you whenever you want.

• "I can't go to where I exactly want to go" - We'll take you to where you want to be.

• “Why do I need all these documents, boarding passes, passport etc.” - Don’t worry, we’ve digitised the entire identification process.

The list goes on. So why would I go to an airport to get on a scheduled flight when I could have the plane come to my house, collect me, my luggage, my family and take us all directly to my destination and return me to my home when I'm done?

The on-demand air travel proposition has the potential to disrupt multiple markets, organisations and business models. The technology exists, we now need the policy to catch up.

This will hit domestic flight first, but I suspect international on-demand flights are a little further away than the 2025 Lilium launch date, but it will come. So what could and should airlines be doing to prepare?

A simple way to think about how you might create solutions is in three phases, short, medium and long term. However, what’s critical is that this approach isn’t linear, and you need to run all stages in tandem.

We do this because in the most part customer pains often remain the same across the short, medium and long term. But, how we address them tomorrow will be different from today.

Example pain - “I hate getting to and from the airport at all points in my vacation journey.”

  • Short term solution - Borrow a solution. Partner with someone like Uber to offer discounted travel to and from the airport as part of the booking funnel. Removing the associated pains with organising travel, parking etc.

  • Medium-term solution - Build or buy your own to/from airport travel solution that addresses the specific needs of air travellers. Start the vacation experience at the customers home, include entertainment and other add-ons.

  • Long Term Solution - Avoid the need for an airport entirely by picking up and dropping off passengers in the aircraft from/to wherever is the most convenient for them. Disrupt the entire travel industry.

Concerned or excited about the impact of on-demand air travel for your organisation?

At McCann iO, we help organisations to tackle innovation. By putting people at the centre of our approach, we help create the types of solutions that disrupt entire industries and markets.