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Major carriers are placing bets on a future where travelers use small, fast, emission-free aircraft to bypass congested roadways on their way to the airport.

Preliminary order agreements for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) from U.K.-based Vertical Aerospace.

The goal is to enable sustainable, price-competitive, regional connectivity across the first and last 100 miles of the journey,” Virgin Atlantic explained after it contracted to purchase up to 150 four-seat craft from Vertical. “For example, reducing the 56-mile journey from Cambridge to London Heathrow to just 22 minutes, in comparison to a one-hour, 30-minute drive by road.

Around the globe, as many as 100 or more companies are developing eVTOL craft, which promise fast, quiet, zero-emission, short-range transport. Imagine helicopters, but cheaper to operate and without the noise or fuel burn. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Archer Aviation, one of the leading eVTOL startups, estimates that the cost of a trip on its four-passenger Maker aircraft will be $3.30 per seat mile at launch, which is similar to an UberX ride. Translate that into a trip from New York JFK to Manhattan and the price would be just $50 per passenger, Archer says.

Economics like that have the potential to open the urban air mobility market to a vast number of people who today wouldn’t consider getting around their home metroplex or commuting to the airport via the sky.

In most cases, the airlines have made modest investments in the eVTOLs and placed ‘orders’ which entail minimum deposits and are options that can be dropped if things don’t work out.

The leading-edge manufacturers will likely achieve type certification by then, said Eliot Lees, vice president of clean transportation for the consulting firm ICF, referencing the FAA certification that approves an aircraft design. But before operations can begin, aircraft must also receive airworthiness certification. And even after that, operators will need to go through a period of commercial proving out, while also ensuring they have an adequate quantity of aircraft and that the public feels safe and is ready to fly them.

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