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Balkiz Sarihan on building an Airbus-branded eVTOL aircraft

By Alex Scerri | June 28, 2024

Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 2 seconds.

Following the unveiling of Airbus’s CityAirbus NextGen prototype in March, as well as the aircraft’s flight experience at VivaTech 2024 in May, Vertical reached out to Balkiz Sarihan, CEO and head of urban air mobility at Airbus, for an update on the company’s eVTOL program as it inches closer toward first flight of the prototype later this year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Scerri: You recently presented the CityAirbus NextGen prototype. Do you expect this to be close to the aircraft that will be certified?

Balkiz Sarihan: We had a long journey starting with the two technology demonstrators. The CityAirbus Alpha was a 2.3-ton vehicle because we believe it is important to build at full-scale, especially when dealing with novel architectures and energy sources. At the other end, we built the Vahana to test tilt technology. In our view, there is a minimum threshold to meet this business requirement, and this is when we went into the convergence of these two designs. Batteries love wings, and the faster we can go in horizontal wingborne cruise flight, the better.

As with our biggest commercial airliners to the lightest helicopters, what we are building now is a passenger-carrying Airbus-branded product. It is technologically sound, which means it is delivering the performance expectations and safety level, compliant with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] standards. Our design looks to optimize this while not sacrificing any of the vertical-flight capability, which is crucial to the missions that we want it to accomplish, be it helicopter emergency medical services [HEMS], ecotourism, or scheduled passenger shuttle services.

We are also starting to see some product diversification in eVTOL designs, which is natural and encouraging. It means we are not all trying to build the same thing, so there will be enough use cases and applications to go around. This will have a positive effect on market growth.

Unlike some eVTOL startups, Airbus is not planning to operate its own CityAirbus NextGen eVTOL aircraft. The company will remain a traditional OEM, stating that becoming an operator of its own aircraft adds “a degree of complexity that we do not want to take on.” Airbus Photo

Alex Scerri: Could you give us the latest updates of when you expect the first flight and the target to have the NextGen certified?

Balkiz Sarihan: The prototype we unveiled is not a mockup, and although our marketing team produced a very slick video, when we opened those hangar doors, you saw the real thing. Of course, we started our interaction with EASA from the very beginning. We are aiming for EASA certification first, the same as all our other aerospace products. We are concurrently looking at all the other tiles of the mosaic, such as the concept of operations [CONOPS], training requirements, etc.

We’re also in a privileged position where we do not have to go through setting up a design organization approval [DOA] or production organization approval [POA] process as we already have those in hand. Therefore, it is a slightly different certification path focus than other eVTOL builders. Although we have our internal targets, our main objective is to have a technologically-sound and business-viable vehicle, and we are well on track.

Alex Scerri: Are you considering concurrent certification with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)?

Balkiz Sarihan: It’s an open question. If you ask me right now, I would say it’s a second step. It also depends on how the FAA and EASA are developing their standards. Depending on how the two standards across the Atlantic will align, there could be a change in our strategy. We are also looking at the rest of the world because although this is a European product, it has a global outreach. There is huge interest for these vehicles in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East where standards for these aircraft and operations are developing at a fast pace, too.

Alex Scerri:  Do you have a catalogue price for the vehicle?

Balkiz Sarihan is the CEO and head of urban air mobility at Airbus. Airbus Photo

Balkiz Sarihan: Not yet. We are not taking any orders or letters of intent. We are in the prototype phase, so there is a lot of learning and continuous testing going on. There are many things happening in parallel, like the multiple paths we have on battery technology, and we have also flown the flight control system on the Airbus H130 Flightlab. The entire flight control system is tested by our eVTOL pilot in a real aircraft. As you know, our helicopters are branded as the H series, the commercial aircraft are the A series, so let’s see what we will come up with for CityAirbus NextGen.

Alex Scerri: Will the aircraft be for sale to private users?

Balkiz Sarihan: It’s still an option, but it’s not as simple as just piloting the aircraft as there is a whole ecosystem that goes with it. There is the operations side, the safety management system [SMS], etc. Even though we are not signing commercial orders, we are selecting operator partners, whether that is airlines or existing helicopter operators. This helps us to shape the performance and operational expectations of this new kind of aircraft.

Alex Scerri: The latest specifications you shared are four seats, and 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour) cruise speed with an 80-kilometer (50-mile) range. Does this range include any margins?

Balkiz Sarihan: When we talk about our range and speed figures, it is never the maximum, full throttle numbers. For us, it is always operational range and speed. We have a target in mind of what we want the aircraft to achieve as an entry point, and then of course, as battery technology will evolve, those numbers will grow from that starting point.

Alex Scerri: Will Airbus be operating its aircraft like some of the other eVTOL companies?

Balkiz Sarihan: There is a lot that will evolve, of course, but this is something we will not be doing. For Airbus, it comes down to two things. Firstly, we do not want to cross into our customers’ business as there has to be something in it for everyone.

Of course, as an OEM, cashing in on some of that income would make the revenue profile look very attractive, but from a long-term perspective, I think it does not leave enough room for everyone else.

We need all the stakeholders to be confident in the return-on-investment prospects to make this business as attractive as possible. Also, fundamentally as Airbus, to be an OEM and an operator is a degree of complexity that we do not want to take on.

Alex Scerri: What mission do you expect the aircraft will carry out?

Balkiz Sarihan: We have three feeder markets to mature the aircraft. Emergency medical services is where we are dedicating a lot of work. This is not only at the aircraft level but enabling the entire rescue chain to benefit. There is a dedicated program called LifeSaver that we introduced during the last Airbus Sustainability Summit. It includes the vehicle and many aspects around medical services.

Ecotourism is another attractive proposition for two reasons. One is the noise neutral factor and of course, the zero local emissions for this type of flight experience. Additionally, from a CONOPS perspective, having a local, short mission departing and landing at the same location is a practical entry point.

Thirdly, there is the scheduled shuttle service. Air taxi is a term that is easy for the public to understand, but it may come with some misconceptions. As a collective, we must be very careful not to set the wrong expectations. It will not be an on-demand service, anywhere in the world, at least not in the beginning.

Airbus said that similar to its other aircraft, the CityAirbus NextGen cabin layout will be multimission-capable and flexible. The single-stick flight control system “will provide a lot of open space and excellent visibility.” Airbus Photo

Alex Scerri: With the mainstream commercial aircraft, you involve the customers very early on in the design phase. Will the same happen for the CityAirbus NextGen?

Balkiz Sarihan: I think we are doing it even earlier here in fact. We signed agreements with select operator partners who are dispersed geographically and represent as many of the market segments as possible. For medical services, we are partners with Norwegian Air Ambulance, one of the premiere HEMS operators. Their foundation is doing a lot of research with us to see what level of medical applications we can offer with this 2.2-ton class vehicle.

We have Ecocopter, which is addressing the Latin American market for ecotourism and passenger shuttle services. Then there is ITA Airways in Italy, as an airline partner. There are a few more that we will share throughout the year. This is an in-depth working relationship where we can see where to use the first generation of these aircraft effectively, but also determine in what direction to prioritize our growth, be it more passengers, range, etc.

Alex Scerri: Can you share any details on the interior design?

Balkiz Sarihan: We brought our flight experience to VivaTech Paris. It was a first view, and in keeping with this year’s show theme, you could experience a flight in Japan as a pilot or passenger. As with all our aircraft, the cabin layout is multimission-capable and flexible. With our single-stick flight control system, we provide a lot of open space and excellent visibility. The open space is what gives you the flexibility to configure the cabin, while the visibility will be appreciated in both tourism and passenger flights.

Alex Scerri: Have you done any studies on scaling up the vehicle?

Balkiz Sarihan: We chose what we think is a reasonable entry point based on how we are projecting battery technology. Our main design parameters were 100 percent battery-powered, piloted with real vertical capability and no tilting mechanism, in a 2.2-ton class aircraft. This is what you see today. Every single kilogram in battery technology improvement will simply translate into extra range and payload. The architecture is such that you can easily scale the cabin when the market demands. We are also very conscious of simplicity of operation, supportability, and of course, cost in terms of operations and maintenance.

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