“The industry has to transport more passengers per slot, which then makes you realize that it makes less sense to use that slot—which you can use for a 747—for a 50-seat turboprop.
“If you can get this traffic, with relative low numbers of passengers, off the runway you create more slots for bigger aircraft and to do this, you have two solutions: one is high-speed rail and the other is vertical lift,” he added.
In some countries high-speed rail is controversial because of the significant cost and environmental impacts, and the fact it only can link major cities. In comparison, helicopters only need a helipad at a major airport, eliminating costly railway infrastructure.
“Helicopters can fly relatively fast and the noise footprint for people living around the airport is relatively the same to the current traffic noise, so vertical lift can still play a role, providing you can design an aircraft with a higher speed at reasonable cost,” says Bertling, hinting at the use of the company's X3 technology.
Regional jets and turboprops will continue to have a place, however. Even though the X3 technology delivers faster cruise speeds than traditional helicopters, these rotorcaft are still not as fast as a turboprop. Instead, such services might be limited to feeder routes of about 180 mi. (300 km) or less.
“I believe that we could well see the first serial products which could do the job with a smaller number of passengers—say 19 seats—at the beginning of the 2020s, and I could imagine seeing larger aircraft 30-40 [seats] in the mid- 20s,” says Bertling. While the aircraft may be slightly more expensive to operate than turboprops, airlines might be able to charge a premium for such service.
Only a handful of passenger helicopter services remain around the world. One of the best-known, the Isles of Scilly helicopter service, which ran in the U.K. for more than three decades, ended in November 2012 because of increased costs. With higher speed and increased productivity however, helicopters could have a place in regional airline operations in the future.