Flying taxi start-ups get a reality check with Airbus veterans at the helm

Companies turn to industry veterans after their programmes come under pressure to deliver following billions of dollars in investment

A rendering of a Volocopter air taxi over The Oxagon at Neom. Photo: Volocopter
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Two German aerospace start-ups developing electric-powered flying taxis face a reality check after hiring former Airbus executives to lead their competing bids to bring the aircraft to market.

Lilium chief executive Klaus Roewe, who joined last month and once led the Airbus narrow-body jet programme, has called for a rethink of the company’s PR strategy as its stock plummets.

Dirk Hoke, chief executive at Volocopter since April and the former head of Airbus’s defence arm, has reined in the company’s global ambitions to set a less demanding target for its first commercial flights.

“We need to show that we’re a very serious company and we need to communicate better on what we’re doing,” said Mr Roewe, who worked at Airbus for 29 years.

“We need to show facts and figures and data and show that this aircraft is really unique and has a lot of advantages.”

Lilium and Volocopter are among a group of companies leading the drive to develop electric vertical take-off and landing craft, as flying taxis are properly known.

They turned to the industry veterans after programmes, once regarded in the aviation industry as akin to science fiction, come under pressure to deliver following billions of dollars in investment.

Volocopter, founded in 2011, is aiming to bring the first eVTOL to market in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, while Lilium, established four years later, has scheduled service entry for 2025.

Both are working towards securing vital certification from the EU Aviation Safety Agency.

Even as flying-taxi start-ups receive orders — UK-based Vertical Aerospace has outline deals for 1,400 craft — or agree Uber-style operating deals with city authorities around the world, those that are publicly traded have seen their share prices tumble since a series of listings via special purpose acquisition companies.

Having listed via a Spac in September last year, shares of Lilium, which is based near Munich, have fallen 86 per cent amid concerns over whether flying-taxi companies can source sufficient numbers of power-dense batteries and clear safety and regulatory hurdles.

The company, whose Spac led to investment from Baillie Gifford, BlackRock, Tencent Holdings and Ferrovial, also faces a tighter financing environment for so-called moonshot technology amid an economic slump.

Vertical Aerospace and US competitors Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation has suffered similar share-price declines.

Volocopter, which has about 700 staff, has eschewed a stock market listing but could see fundraising prove tougher in future as central banks raise interest rates to choke off inflation.

The company, based in Bruchsal, near Stuttgart, has so far raised more than €500 million ($521 million) in launch financing, including $182 million from Saudi Arabia’s Neom, which is building a futuristic city on the Red Sea, and a fund backed by Chinese car maker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

Other backers include logistics firm DB Schenker and the venture capital arm of chip maker Intel.

Following Mr Hoke’s arrival, Volocopter has cut back on an array of municipal projects under consideration to focus efforts on the Saudi and Paris launches, another in Rome and a fourth providing tourist flights around Singapore.

Updated: November 25, 2022, 4:30 AM
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