Public acceptance is crucial. The community’s views, perception and fears all hold immense power. They can enable an existing or emerging industry to achieve great heights, but they can also dictate the complete decimation of an industry’s existence.
The power of public perception can be often found in projects of the past; there is a valuable lesson to be learned from history.
New York Airways - Early Urban Air Mobility
Post World War II, the idea of urban transportation through aerial services brought about excitement within the population. In the early 1950s, New York Airways had established its revolutionary passenger transport services, which connected people from downtown Manhattan, New York to the John F Kennedy (JFK) Airport (Igor, I, 2018, Beresnevičius, R, 2019 & Riva, A, 2019).
This incentive for fast, efficient and accessible mode of urban transport allowed the airline’s venture of operating Sikorsky helicopters to become very popular amongst the public.
However, this industry's experiences were short-lived. In 1977, a NY Airways helicopter had collapsed on the helipad located at the top of the Pan Am building, whilst passengers were already queued up to board (Beresnevičius, R, 2019).
The rotor blades had detached from the helicopter’s body, slashing the passengers, instantaneously killing four and injuring a fifth person. Another rotor blade, as it fell to the ground, had caused the death of a pedestrian and injured another (Igor, I, 2018). A NTSB report revealed that the accident occurred due to cyclic fatigue (wear and tear), from which the landing gear had given way (Swopes, B, 2016).
New York Airways Helicopter Service was operating from the rooftop of Pan Am until the end of the 1970s. Source: panam.org
The airline continued to operate, however the Pan Am helipad was never reopened post the accident. A second crash in 1979 saw the death of the airline as a result of accidents, the high running costs and the noise from helicopters (Swopes, B, 2016. Beresnevičius, R, 2019). New York Airways had to file for bankruptcy.
This was only the beginning, other helicopter passenger service providers, such as Los Angeles Helicopter Airways, SABENA and Chicago Airways, across the United States were also affected (Swopes, B, 2016, Riva, 2019).
Impact on the User Experience
Noise generated by the helicopters was one of the early concerns of the public, however with the growing popularity of the transport service this inconvenience was becoming acceptable. On the other hand, the NY Airways accidents caused a very significant negative impact on the public's perception.
Many people began to feel unsafe, either to travel in these helicopters or to have them fly over their head. The thought of a helicopter crashing and causing life-threatening injuries was widespread. The community no longer wanted for aerial vehicles to fly at low altitudes or to land on rooftops of tall buildings.
In the past, many companies had tried to re-envisage the industry, yet failed to do so effectively. We now see the emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) industry revisiting some of those early ideas to shape the future of sustainable and safe mobility.
Importance of Public Perception
“This next generation must be trained and mentored to foster their deep personal engagement with the safety of flight and understand the role they play to avoid the tragedy of an accident.” - Airbus, 'Statistical Analysis of commercial aviation accidents 1958-2019'
A pre-COVID-19 pandemic study conducted by Airbus on the public perception of UAM had identified that 56% of the respondents were concerned about the safety of individuals on the ground. This highlights how important it is to ensure that the public feel safe and secure to be transported by eVTOLS and other UAM/AAM vehicles and having them flying overhead.
These figures resonate with the concerns of society during the NY Airways helicopter accident, which took the life of a person on the ground in 1977. The volume of noise was the second highest concern of the public at 49%.
The audience perceived that with an increase in aerial operations in urban areas, there would also be an increase in noise. It was found that 44.5% of the respondents' initial reaction were in support of UAM, with only 41.4% considering UAM to be safe.
The Airbus study also highlighted that 55% of the respondents within the age range 25-35 were in favour of UAM, with only 15% of the respondents in the age range 75-84 were in support (Yedavalli et al.). This could be an indicator of the older generations having reservations due to the incidents in the past.
To win the elder generations over, it will take more conscious effort from the UAM industry in comparison to the younger generation, who tend to be more adaptable to changes. Yet the younger members of the public need to be educated on all the potential UAM will bring upon mass scale implementation including the economical and social benefits.
At Flight Crowd we believe that the general public should be perceived as one of the key stakeholders in the nascent Urban Air Mobility industry.
Source: Airbus Altiscope Blueprint
Furthermore, it is important to inspire the future generation of young professionals as well as the general public. Without targeting young people, they may not come across future flight technologies, and thus may be unaware of the potential career prospects which will become available as the industry scales up.
Overall, one of the focal points of UAM regulators, manufacturers, implementers and other key stakeholders should be to address the public’s concerns regarding noise, air and visual pollution and most importantly safety. This will contribute towards the sustainable development and global support of UAM as a new transportation solution with the potential to benefit communities worldwide.
Importance of Focusing on The End User
Going forward, it is essential that all key stakeholders within the Urban Air Mobility ecosystem focus on the end user at the very beginning of their journey. We must ensure that we have garnered the public's support, confidence and acceptance from the start, without which the efforts will be futile.
To reiterate, public acceptance has the power to lead an industry to achieving new heights or failing it at its very inception. Focusing on the end user’s needs early has many benefits. It is more feasible to implement design changes and modifications at early stages rather than retrospectively, for example when considering accessible needs for the disabled community, leading to a better economic efficiency.
With this in mind, our next article in the UAM Stakeholders category, will explore the pathways the UAM industry can gain the public's appreciation and support.
- Helipad: Is a landing area or a platform for helicopters. The area is a clearly marked hard surface positioned away from obstacles to enable the helicopters to land safely.
-BERESNEVICIUS, Rytis, 2019. “Defining urban travel in 1950s: the story of New York Airways.” Aerotime Hub, 8 July 2019. Available here.
- I, Igor, 2018. “Sikorsky Helicopters in Airline Service.” Sikorsky Archives News, January 2018. Available here.
- Riva, Alerbto, 2019. “When Helicopters Landed on Manhattan Skyscrapers All the Time.” That Points Guy, 10 June 2019. Available here.
- Swopes, Bryan, 2016. “8 July 1953.” This day in Aviation, 2016. Available here.
- Yedavalli, Pavan, et al. “An Assessment of Public Perception of Urban Air Mobility.” Airbus UTM, Airbus, 2019. Available here.