Blade Sea Plane

Fly Blade, the ‘Uber of Helicopters’, Expands Operations to India

US-based helicopter flight firm Fly Blade has formed a joint venture with Hunch Ventures to start intercity helicopter service from Mumbai to Pune and Shirdi, though operations initially will be intracity

Blade will have hubs in Mumbai’s upscale oceanfront neighborhood Juhu and in Mahalaxmi, home to the city’s famous horse racing track. It plans to offer flights between the two heliports, as well as to Pune, the closest major city, and Shirdi, a popular religious site about 150 miles away.

A helicopter app for the wealthy is targeting Mumbai’s elite to overcome the traffic congestion.

Mumbai, India

Come March, booking a seat on a helicopter will be just a tap of an app away. Fly Blade, the largest arranger of helicopters for civilian travel in the US, is starting its helicopter services in the country through a joint venture with local venture capital firm Hunch Ventures. The new company, Blade India, will offer intercity helicopter services, though it will be initially available only in Mumbai. Flights would depart from Juhu and Mahalaxmi, connecting with heliports in Pune and Shirdi. It aims to eventually offer services on intracity routes.

In the US, Blade has often been called “the Uber of Helicopters”, though there is no connection between the two. However, like cab aggregator Uber, Blade doesn’t own or operate its own helicopters.

“We follow an asset-light model and don’t have any helicopters of our own,” said Rob Wiesenthal, chief executive of Blade. “In India, we will operate a niche service but this service will eventually grow.” He added that a single successful helicopter route in India has the potential to outperform the revenue Blade generates from its operations in the US in a year.

“The growth that you’re experiencing here in India is stratospheric,” Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal told CNN Business, citing the country’s strong economy as one of the main reasons for launching in Mumbai. “The transportation infrastructure has not kept up with the stratospheric growth, and through all our research we have never seen the level of friction in transportation anywhere in the world,” he added.

Blade India will expand its helicopter services to connect cities with sites of pilgrimage and weekend getaways. It also plans to implement modern technologies such as electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) in the country.

“India’s major cities are consistently ranked as the most congested in the world,” Wiesenthal said. “By broadening access to on-demand aviation, we can start to mitigate these issues today, while building the foundation for eVTOL services tomorrow.”

Hunch Ventures’ founder, Karanpal Singh, said his company had made a long-term investment in the alliance.

“Given the challenges of building transportation infrastructure in our country, we will utilize India’s existing network of heliports to launch an urban air mobility solution immediately,” he said.

Both Wiesenthal and Singh declined to give details of their investments in the venture.

An industry expert said, requesting anonymity, that the current regulatory environment in India, and Blade’s model of not owning helicopters, might prevent it from achieving the success it did in the US. While safety standards in India are vastly different from the US, there was also a higher probability of helicopters getting grounded in India due to the unavailability of spare parts, the expert said.

“The model works brilliantly in the US but in India, where there’s near-zero infrastructure for helicopters, various restrictions of airspace, restrictions on access to helicopter routes, failure of such model is higher,” the person said. “The latest aviation policy does mention helicopter services but concrete action in this regard is yet to be taken by the government.”

India has several helicopter services, including state-owned Pawan Hans, Global Vectra Helicorp, Heligo charters, Himalayan Heli Services, United Heli Charters, among others. While most helicopters in India are operated by non-scheduled operators, charter flights are generally booked for tourism, pilgrimage, election, and VVIP travel purposes. Helicopters are also used to reach offshore oil rigs.

Chronic Congestion

India’s cities are among the most congested in the world. A report by the Boston Consulting Group earlier this year, commissioned by Uber, estimated that Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata lose more than $22 billion a year because of traffic jams. It takes commuters about 1.5 hours longer to travel a given distance than in comparable Asian cities, according to the report.
While Blade has not yet settled on prices for its India service, it will be out of reach for most Indians, who make less than $2,000 a year on average. The apps cheapest offering in the United States, a five-minute flight from Manhattan to JFK, costs between $195 and $295.
Instead, the company is targeting the country’s large and rapidly growing group of ultra rich people. India now has more than 340,000 millionaires, according to a Credit Suisse report published this year. Mumbai is home to several people at the very top of that list, including India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani.
“Many people were kind of surprised that this would be the first [country] that we went to but it’s a huge opportunity,” Wiesenthal said.
“It’s clear the younger consumer with higher disposable income is paying for experiences much more than they are for products today — that’s what we see in the US and we’re seeing many of the same signals in India,” he added.
Blade joins other companies trying to cash in on India’s high-end aviation market. A company called JetSetGo has a similar business model where Indians can book private jets or helicopters online, while Bangalore — India’s tech city — recently started offering helicopter taxi rides to its airport for $65.

Urban Air Mobility

  • Wiesenthal is focused on Mumbai and its surrounding areas for the moment and sees his company as a “trailblazer” for the flying taxis that companies such as Uber and Rolls-Royce are trying to build.
  • “I think everyone’s focused on ‘City 2.0’ and transportation infrastructure is an important part of it,” he said. “What Blade is providing is a high-end service that will provide a template, hopefully, and a roadmap as urban air mobility becomes less expensive and becomes more of a mass-market product.”
  • For now, Blade is targeting customers for whom time is money.
  • “We measure the value of the route by the time that it takes to fly by helicopter versus the time it takes to drive, and we’re now turning 6-hour drives into 35-minute flights,” Wiesenthal said. “It’s obviously not going to be as inexpensive as Uber, but for people who value their time more than the cost it does make sense.”

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