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Kolin Schunck of Lufthansa outlines air taxi strategy

By Ceren Baktimur | August 21, 2023

Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 58 seconds.

As anticipation builds for the main stage sessions at AIRTAXI World Congress in San Francisco from Oct. 2 to 5, the AIRTAXI team is excited to provide a preview of Kolin Schunck’s upcoming talk on route network planning on Oct. 4.

In this exclusive interview, Schunck sheds light on the future of air travel. With his expertise and experience at Lufthansa Innovation Hub, Schunck offers unique perspectives on the role of airport and airline hubs in the air taxi market, as well as insights into the AIRTAXI 2023 San Francisco event. For more information or to register for the event, visit AIRTAXI World Congress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ceren Baktimur: Can you share your journey into advanced air mobility (AAM) and what attracted you to this field?

Kolin Schunck: My journey into AAM began with a fascination for technology and innovation, especially in the context of aerospace. In 2013, I joined Airbus and looked at technology trends, back then at hydrogen. The potential to revolutionize urban transportation and create a more seamless and efficient mobility ecosystem attracted me to this field later on. The opportunity to be part of a transformational shift in the way we move people and goods were key drivers in my pursuit of AAM.

Ceren Baktimur: How would you describe the current state of the AAM sector?

Kolin Schunck: The AAM sector has seen rapid growth in past years but has arrived at the level of realism. While numerous startups, established aerospace companies, and mobility firms have and still invest in the field, we are also seeing advancements in technology, regulation, and the unfolding of an entire ecosystem. However, it’s still in its early stages with many challenges to overcome, including regulatory, public acceptance, and infrastructure development, to name just a few.

Ceren Baktimur: Can you elaborate on your main stage presentation topic at AIRTAXI 2023 SFO about airport/airline hub feeding?

Kolin Schunck: My main stage presentation will focus on airport/airline hub feeding. Hub feeding with AAM can bridge the gaps between urban centers and airports, allowing airlines to tap into new markets and provide seamless, integrated travel experiences. By enhancing connectivity and efficiency, the concept of hub feeding can transform the way we approach air travel and create more cohesive transportation ecosystems.

Ceren Baktimur: In your research, what emerging technologies have you identified as key to the future growth of AAM?

Kolin Schunck: Emerging technologies such as electric propulsion, autonomous flight systems, advanced air traffic management, and 5G communication networks are key to the future growth of AAM. These technologies enable safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly operations, which are essential for the widespread adoption of AAM.

The Main Stage summit will focus on air taxis becoming operational and will look at how operators are readying themselves for the countdown to certification, vertical integration, preparing airports for air taxis. AIRTAXI Photo

Ceren Baktimur: What steps are necessary for AAM solutions to become mainstream in air travel?

Kolin Schunck: For AAM solutions to become mainstream, a concerted effort in regulatory alignment, public engagement, infrastructure development, technological innovation, and cross-industry collaboration is necessary. Building trust through safety assurance, demonstrating value to consumers, and developing scalable business models will also be vital.

Ceren Baktimur: Do you see the potential for major players in the air taxi market to form alliances, similar to traditional airline alliances like Star Alliance or Oneworld? These alliances could pave the way for additional revenue streams and novel business prospects.

Kolin Schunck: Learning from the grand alliances in the traditional airline industry, it seems more likely that alliances within the eVTOL sector would occur between operators and ground-based mobility firms rather than the eVTOL original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] themselves.

Given the competitive nature of the eVTOL manufacturing landscape, OEMs may be hesitant to engage in alliances, as it might hinder their competitive edge. Moreover, the dynamics of the industry, where operators and manufacturers are not always the same entities, make alliances among manufacturers less likely, though exceptions do exist.

Instead, we could witness the formation of alliances between actual operators, such as airlines or similar entities, and ground-based mobility firms like Uber. Such alliances could extend the network for operators and provide a seamless travel experience for passengers. Imagine a customer flying from New York City to San Francisco, then taking an eVTOL to San Jose, and from there an on-demand shuttle to the final destination. All of this could be covered by one ticket through an alliance, offering an integrated and efficient travel solution.

Ceren Baktimur: Building upon the concept of alliances, let’s delve into the potential for similar code-sharing arrangements. In the traditional airline market, code-sharing agreements have been instrumental in expanding route networks and enhancing connectivity for passengers. Do you foresee similar arrangements happening in the emerging air taxi market to optimize service coverage and passenger convenience?

Kolin Schunck: Code-sharing would likely remain focused on specific connections and shared operations within the emerging air taxi market. For example, a customer might purchase a ticket from an airline that includes an eVTOL flight operated by another service, followed by an on-demand ground shuttle, all under one booking. This approach would extend network reach and offer more destinations without having to operate more flights and without necessarily requiring a grand alliance of multiple stakeholders.

In essence, while code-sharing arrangements could certainly play a role in the AAM sector, they would likely function within the specific partnerships between operators, whether or not those are part of broader alliances, such as the ones formed to create integrated travel experiences from start to finish.

AIRTAXI is back this year in San Francisco to facilitate much-needed one-on-one meetings among the world’s top decision-makers. AIRTAXI Photo

Ceren Baktimur: In the scenario where an air taxi service forms a partnership with a top airline for a selected point-to-point route, would the offering likely to be a fully integrated and seamless product, providing passengers with a unified journey experience from start to finish? In other words, would the air taxi service be liveried in the airline’s branding, creating a cohesive and branded experience, or do you think a major airline like Lufthansa might take a different approach in such partnerships?

Kolin Schunck: In the scenario where an air taxi service forms a partnership with a top airline for a selected point-to-point route, it is highly conceivable that the offering would be a fully integrated and seamless product. This integration could manifest itself through code-sharing arrangements or even broader alliances, as previously discussed.

The extent to which the air taxi service would be liveried in the airline’s branding would likely depend on the nature and depth of the partnership. In a close collaboration, where the air taxi service is seen as an extension of the airline’s own services, adopting the airline’s branding could create a cohesive and branded experience for passengers.

However, major airlines like Lufthansa might take a different approach, especially considering the complexity of the eVTOL industry, where the manufacturers, operators, and potential allied ground-based mobility firms all have unique interests and brand identities. The approach might be more nuanced, balancing the need for brand cohesion with the desire to maintain distinct identities.

While an integrated, seamless experience is highly likely, the exact branding strategy would vary depending on the specific partnership and the involved parties’ preferences and strategic goals.

Ceren Baktimur: What locations in Europe do you identify as having a need for efficient and expedient transportation solutions connecting airports to their respective city centers? Based on my perspective and discussions with network analysts from leading airlines, Bodrum Milas Airport (BJV) was mentioned several times as a potential hub, attributed to its daily passenger volume, substantial international traffic, direct connectivity to several convention hotels, and the challenges arising from its distance from the city center.

Kolin Schunck: There are indeed areas in Europe that could benefit from efficient and expedient transportation solutions to connect airports to city centers. However, it’s essential to note that an in-depth analysis must be conducted to assess the viability of these routes for eVTOL services.

The following cities are potential candidates, subject to further investigation:

  • Paris, France, because of multiple airports and heavy traffic;
  • London, U.K., because of similar challenges to Paris, with added complexity;
  • Zurich, Switzerland, because of the mountainous location and strong buying power by Swiss citizens;
  • Milan, Italy, because of the potential for intra-airport shuttles, similar to Paris and London, or shuttles to prominent close-by cities, such as Venice.

We are currently running an analysis on the top 43 global cities and assessing each city by three use cases based on six different metrics (e.g., airspace restrictions, alternative transportation, weather, etc.). These detailed examinations will shed light on the best-suited locations and the particular challenges and opportunities they present. We will publish our insights at the beginning of October, and I will present the findings for the first time at the AIRTAXI World Congress.

AIRTAXI World Congress 2023 will bring together over 400+ influential decision-makers from around the globe, including eVTOL developers, airlines and operators, airports and vertiports, investors and city authorities. AIRTAXI Photo

Ceren Baktimur: As the air taxi market evolves, there is an ongoing debate about the main target clientele. Do you believe the primary customer base will consist of premium and business-class passengers, given their demand for efficient and time-saving travel options, or do you see air taxis transforming into a mass transportation solution, as suggested by some of the major air taxi manufacturers?

Kolin Schunck: As the air taxi market evolves, the primary focus seems to be on the luxury and premium segment, which is indeed witnessing tremendous growth. Take, for example, the astounding valuation of luxury firms like Hermes de Paris, now worth more than mainstream brands like Nike. This surge in the luxury market is indicative of a broader trend and demand for exclusive, high-end services. This surge in the luxury market is indicative of a broader trend and demand for exclusive, high-end services.

The burgeoning air taxi industry promises to offer an efficient and time-saving travel solution, which is precisely what the premium and business-class passengers are seeking. These passengers are the ideal target audience for OEMs offering cutting-edge air taxi services.

However, that doesn’t mean the potential for air taxis as a mass transportation solution should be overlooked. While the initial focus may be on the luxury segment, it’s conceivable that technological advancements, increased competition, and growing acceptance of this mode of transportation could lead to more affordable options. Over time, this might spill over into the mass market, making air taxis accessible to a wider demographic.

Ceren Baktimur: Do you envision scheduled air taxi operations primarily serving as regional feeders, connecting urban centers with airports and other transportation hubs to complement existing air travel infrastructure?

Kolin Schunck: Yes, this approach represents a logical starting point for several reasons.

First and foremost, connecting urban centers with airports and other transportation hubs is the easiest of all use cases currently under discussion. The integration of eVTOL technology into existing air travel infrastructure does not necessitate a complete overhaul of current systems. Rather, it requires strategic coordination and collaboration with established operators.

Second, from an airline operator’s perspective, this approach is particularly promising. By focusing on regional feeder services, airlines have the opportunity to tap into unserved or underserved demand. They can extend their network reach and fill the gaps in transportation that exist between urban areas and airports. This can lead to a significant expansion of an airline’s network, opening up new markets and providing enhanced connectivity for passengers.

In addition, focusing on regional feeders aligns with the existing travel patterns and needs of many passengers. People are already seeking efficient ways to get to and from airports, and AAM can offer a premium, time-saving option that fits neatly into this existing demand.

While regional feeder services will likely be a dominant use case in the early stages of AAM implementation, as the industry matures and regulatory environments evolve, we may see AAM expanding into other areas and serving diverse transportation needs. However, at the beginning, regional feeder services are where we anticipate significant growth and focus in the near term.

The highlight of the AIRTAXI event will be the vertical demonstration, featuring some of the top eVTOLs. AIRTAXI Photo

Ceren Baktimur: As a participant in AIRTAXI 2023 SFO, can you share what attendees can look forward to from the conference this year?

Kolin Schunck: Attendees of AIRTAXI 2023 SFO can look forward to engaging discussions, innovative presentations, and networking opportunities with industry leaders. It will be a platform to explore the latest advancements, share insights, and foster collaboration across sectors to drive the future of AAM.

Ceren Baktimur: How do you envision the impact of events like AIRTAXI on the wider eVTOL and air mobility industry?

Kolin Schunck: Events like AIRTAXI have a significant impact on the eVTOL and air mobility industry by facilitating collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and innovation. They provide a platform for stakeholders to come together, align visions, and work collectively toward realizing the full potential of advanced air mobility. These events are instrumental in shaping the industry’s future direction and accelerating progress toward a new era of transportation.

Ceren Baktimur: Thank you for sharing your invaluable insights, Kolin. Our commitment to advance AAM aligns seamlessly with the industry’s overarching vision. It is gratifying to witness the emergence of various platforms, both public and private, that unite stakeholders and engage the wider public.  

As we celebrate AIRTAXI’s fourth year, our journey has revealed the unique and intricate elements that set the event apart. Anchored by a dedicated team, we’ve harnessed these components to yield tangible results and a remarkable return on investment. We’re humbled to observe these very elements now embraced by other events in the industry.

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