Mar 7, 2022
IN THE CLASSIC SPACE-AGE CARTOON The Jetsons, personal flying saucers are the favored means of zipping around town in the 21st century. Though the sight of futuristic airborne taxis overhead isn’t reality just yet, it may be closer than you think.
The idea of flying taxis has captured the imagination of at least one very important player in the travel industry in Asia. One of the region’s most far-reaching airlines, AirAsia has recently branched out far beyond its low-cost-carrier roots into a number of online services including hotel bookings, food delivery and ride hailing, all available through a single app. And now AirAsia wants to get us zipping around in piloted drones within a couple of years.
“We’re all about mobility, right?” said Tony Fernandes, CEO of Capital A, the newly rebranded parent company of the airline and the AirAsia Super App. “Moving people, moving things.” Booking flights (including on rival airlines), sending packages and booking terrestrial transport via the service known as AirAsia Ride are already available in several countries in the region including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and are being rolled out in Thailand and the Philippines.
The flying taxis, according to Fernandes, would complement the company’s existing services across Asia-Pacific, an attractive alternative to cover distances that are a long drive but can’t be reached with a commercial flight. “I think there are skeptics,” he said. “But it fits in really nicely with our ride hailing.”
Speaking to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia in Bangkok recently, he gave an example that many familiar with the Thai capital will identify with. “When you think about taking AirAsia Ride, likely you’re not going to take it to Hua Hin,” the popular weekend getaway about 140 kilometers south of the city. “You also can’t fly there [on a regular commercial flight] from Bangkok. The air taxi fills a really nice gap between a plane and a car.”
That’s why the company has taken an option on 100 sleek and sexy VX4 eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) devices. The first of the ultra-cool mini-aircraft could be in service as soon as 2024.
The trip to Hua Hin currently takes about three hours by car – without factoring in Bangkok’s maddeningly unpredictable traffic. A drone traveling at top speeds of 200 kilometers per hour could make the trip with four passengers and a pilot in under an hour. “Going to a golf course would take me ten minutes instead of an hour in traffic,” Fernandes added.
From left: An AirAsia plane; Tony Fernandes, the CEO of Capital A. Courtesy of AirAsia (2)
Similar to how closed borders across Asia made many in the region explore domestically, flying taxis might also inspire us to seek out more off-beat destinations closer to home. “I think people are going to travel shorter distances,” he said. “There are so many beautiful places in Thailand so what I want to try and do is promote them, to create new destinations in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and connect ASEAN [the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations].”
Fernandes admits that there are lots of hurdles AirAsia will have to jump before we can hail our own personal drones on the app. Beyond the construction of the aircraft, there are also practicalities like developing low-altitude air traffic control. “We have that in the sky at 36,000 feet, but we don’t have it at 2,000 feet,” he said.
But several countries in Southeast Asia are already addressing the issues to help get flying taxis off the ground. “It’ll be available wherever the government allows it to be available,” says an upbeat Fernandes, meaning the piloted drones could finally make real that original AirAsia slogan, Now everyone can fly.
Once all the safety systems are in place, Fernandes assures us that there is nothing to worry about. “It’s incredibly safe, about 100 times safer than a helicopter.” And an even cooler flex.