Has an Innovative Mode of Transportation Solved the Burke Lakefront Airport Debate?

April 21, 2022

eVTOL Vehicles Create New Possibilities in Aviation

Following years of innovation in aviation, battery and computing technologies, a new mode of transportation has emerged: the electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, or “eVTOL vehicle.” These striking machines share the overall appearance of a drone, much like the ones a hobbyist might enjoy on a weekend afternoon near Wade Lagoon. eVTOL vehicles, however, are scaled up to human proportions, permitting transport of multiple passengers and even freight. An eVTOL vehicle allows for takeoff and landing without the use of runways; instead, taking directly to the skies from a small landing pad. The exceptionality of an eVTOL vehicle lies in its lightweight construction and agility outmatching a traditional helicopter.

What Is the Future of Burke Lakefront Airport?

Enter Burke Lakefront Airport, spanning 450 acres of lakefront land since 1947. The small airport is a receiver facility to the larger Cleveland Hopkins International Airport some 15 miles away. Traffic volumes at Burke peaked in 2000, with 100,321 takeoffs and landings. The airport saw only 40,296 takeoffs and landings in 2021, remaining approximately stagnant from 2019 and representing a monetary deficit of nearly $640,000 per year. The only recent commercial operator with a business at Burke was Ultimate Air Shuttle, which flew regularly between Cleveland and Cincinnati’s Luken Airport before shutting down in December of 2021. While Burke has remained home to Cleveland staples such as the Air Show and the International Women’s Air and Space Museum within the airport’s terminal, the question remains how to achieve the fullest and most optimized potential use of the surrounding 450-acre facility.

Last fall, then-candidate Mayor Justin Bibb shared the sentiments of many of his constituents in acknowledging that the time had come for “an honest conversation about the future of Burke.” This openness to a conversation about Burke’s future stood in stark contrast to the conviction of predecessor Mayor Frank Jackson, who staunchly opposed altering the function of the facility. However, any plan to completely close the facility might be foreclosed by triggering repayment of millions of dollars received from FAA grant funding that was previously used to improve the runway and other facilities at Burke. Prior commentator suggestions for the future of Burke have included repurposing the land as community greenspace, for residential development or for commercial uses. Indeed, a re-allocation of Burke’s uses could include a mix of these solutions given the possibilities presented by eVTOL vehicle technology.

Takeoff and landing facilities suitable for eVTOL vehicles (so-called “vertiports”) have variable geographic footprints. These structures range in size from single pads about the size of several parking spaces to “hubs” and “bases” the size of several football fields. Single pads cost approximately $200-400,000 to construct and $600-900,000 annually to operate. The largest hubs can cost $5-6 million to build and $15-17 million per year to operate. While the compact size of takeoff and landing pads permit rather compact spacing, the structures must be underlain with high-tech charging infrastructure, permitting quick recharge between flights.

eVTOL Vehicles Could Benefit the City of Cleveland

The emerging electronic aviation industry surrounding eVTOL vehicles presents several potential applications suitable for Burke, from experiential scenic flights to freight applications, air taxis and even air ambulances. As this drone-like technology continues to develop, Burke Lakefront Airport represents a perfect lure to attract emerging tech industry frontrunners such as Wisk Aero, Tcab Tech, Whisper Aero and more. eVTOL vehicles under a certain weight class, so-called “ultralight” vehicles, need not even receive certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), although such flights must avoid populated areas. Burke’s 450-acre footprint makes it an attractive location for early test flights and experiential flights to attract tourism and industry attention. A transition for Burke involving adoption of eVTOL infrastructure may allow for seamless and profitable land use while expanding transportation options and tourist attraction experiences that would serve to benefit the City of Cleveland. The coming years will show whether these possibilities shall come to fruition.

If you have any questions about the content of this article or would like to discuss the potential future of Burke as it relates to eVTOL vehicles, please do not hesitate to contact KJK Managing Partner Jon Pinney at jjp@kjk.com or 216.736.7260.