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Flying taxis ‘within a decade’ says Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia flying taxi volococopter Dubai Reuters/Satish Kumar
A flying taxi being tested in the sklies of Dubai: Saudi Arabia believes advanced air mobility, or AAM, can create 'unprecedented opportunities for the Saudi people'.
  • Air transport plan launched
  • Agreements with China, South Korea
  • ‘All conceptual stuff at the moment’

Saudi Arabia has published a plan to launch advanced air transport, such as flying taxis, within the next 10 years.

However, experts have played down the kingdom’s impact on the fledgling industry globally.

The kingdom’s General Authority of Civil Aviation (Gaca) said it wanted to revolutionise the aviation sector by supporting technologies such as unmanned aircraft systems and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. 

“We’re not just building a new mode of transportation, we’re creating the backbone for the next era of economic and social development in Saudi Arabia,” said Sulaiman bin Saleh Al-Muhaimidi, Gaca’s vice-president of aviation safety and environmental sustainability.

Successful tests have already taken place and authorities are working to establish a regulatory framework.

The kingdom is also reaching out to international partners in advanced air mobility (AAM), with agreements in place with South Korea, Singapore and China.

But analysts told AGBI the kingdom is relatively late to the party and progress to date globally has been slow and characterised by “one step forward and half a step back”. 

While there has been some progress in using drones for commercial and humanitarian needs, a move to AAM passenger flights was described as a whole new game.

Still in development

John Grant, a partner at the UK consultancy Midas Aviation, said: “The challenge here is that everyone is trying to take market leadership and ownership of this area, but the truth is, we are still a huge way from any type of passenger services using such equipment. 

“The whole market is still in development, with no large-scale production or, indeed, equipment licensed anywhere to operate such services. It is all conceptual stuff at the moment.” 

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is seeking to play catch-up with the UAE, which issued the world’s first national vertiport regulation in December 2022.

The regulation covers the design and operation of vertiports – areas of land, water, or structures used for VTOL aircraft. 

In October, Abu Dhabi unveiled plans to establish a centre for smart and autonomous vehicle industries, which is intended to add up to $33 billion to the UAE economy and generate 50,000 jobs.

Linus Bauer, founder of aviation consultancy Bauer Aviation, described Saudi Arabia’s plan as a “significant step” in its broader aviation and technological ambitions.

“The move can be seen as a strategic effort to keep pace with, or even outdo, regional competitors like the UAE, which has already made significant strides,” he said.

Bauer said that although Saudi Arabia’s entry was timely, it also comes with challenges in terms of the significant investment needed in infrastructure, regulatory approvals and public acceptance of flying taxis and similar technology. 

Grant said that the UAE has an advantage over Saudi Arabia as it already has a huge aviation market and supporting infrastructure that will need to be developed in the kingdom. 

“It’s a lovely piece of marketing material and the Saudis are good at that… but don’t hold your breath for a boarding card any time soon,” he said.

Grant said that the bigger aviation challenge for Saudi Arabia lay in achieving its 300 million passenger target by 2030: “It’s only six years away and requires a quantum step change on progress to date.”

The Saudi AAM action plan envisions the sector being developed in three phases.

The first phase, to be completed over two to three years, will include the creation of a regulation and certification framework and flight tests. Phase two will involve the start of commercial operations within five to 10 years.

Beyond that, phase three will look to increase AAM supply, decrease prices and improve connectivity and automation.

Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser, the minister of transport, and chairman of Gaca, said the sector has potential to create “unprecedented opportunities for the Saudi people”. 

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