Tap, tap, fly: Blade, aka Uber for helicopters, is here to relieve Mumbai's traffic congestion
By Prarthana Mitra
In a move that hopes to bring urban air mobility to India's financial capital, US-based helicopter ride-sharing app Blade is eyeing an expansion into Indian skies. The newly minted Blade India, in partnership with Indian investment firm Hunch Ventures, announced the launch of their on-demand flight service in and around Mumbai from early next year.
Known as Uber for helicopters, Blade typically uses an app to crowdsource flights on helicopters and seaplanes for which you can book seats in an instant.
Blade, in the US, allows urban residents with a greater disposable income to book a helicopter trip between New York City and the Hamptons for $ 795 (~Rs 56,000). Other shorter itineraries in and around Manhattan, Miami, and Los Angeles are also available.
For a few hundred dollars more, you can book a chartered flight to a destination of your choice, and you can even choose to fly on a faster aircraft if you'd like.
Other perks include breathtaking views and a streamlined transfer process for passengers flying in and out of certain airports. Delta Airline passengers, for example, can arrange to be met on the jet bridge by Delta's Elite Services team, who gather the user's checked luggage and bring them to an awaiting Blade car on the tarmac. That car then brings them to a Blade helicopter, which will get them from JFK airport to Manhattan in less than 10 minutes.
Mumbai will be Blade's first operational base outside USA. In Mumbai, Blade India has plans to set up hubs across Juhu's upscale oceanfront and Mahalaxmi, the home to the city's famous horse racing track. Besides them, two other heliports will also be created to link Pune, the closest major city, and Shirdi, a popular religious site about 150 miles away.
The subsidiary Blade India will be headed by Amar Abrol, former CEO of Malaysian budget airline AirAsia. Before that, Abrol was the CEO of Tune Money, a start-up that aims to deliver low-cost financial products in Southeast Asia. He has spent 19 years with American Express, leading diverse teams across multiple markets including Hong Kong, Singapore, UK, India, and Malaysia.
Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal explained the reasons behind the unusual choice of Mumbai. First, he believed that this initiative could help tackle a problem India is infamous for - road congestion caused by overpopulation in one of the busiest cities of the world.
According to a report commissioned by Uber, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata incur annual losses of $ 22 billion due to chronic congestion. On an average, the report found, public transport in these Indian cities takes commuters about 1.5 hours longer than commuters in other Asian cities to travel the same distance.
"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," Wisenthal said after the announcement.
The demand, explained Will Heyburn, Blade's head of corporate development, is enormous. With about 1,500 registered vehicles per kilometre of road, which is further restricted by the city's peninsular geography, chopper rides can be a solution for those with money to spare.
Speaking to Financial Times , Heyburn said that the ratios of the helicopter flight time to the average drive time in Indian cities were unprecedented. "You're talking about 40-minute helicopter rides that are replacing four- to eight-hour drives. [sic]," he remarked.
Wiesenthal's second reason is far more understandable. The company is unabashedly trying to appeal to India's burgeoning nouveau riche. The country reportedly has over 340,000 millionaires, while Mumbai is home to some of the most influential names on the list, including India's richest man Mukesh Ambani. Moreover, under the influence of global consumption trends, young people tend to spend their disposable income on experiences more than services.
"The growth that you're experiencing here in India is stratospheric," Wiesenthal told CNN Business, citing the country's strong economy as one of the main reasons for launching in Mumbai and its surrounding areas. "Many people were kind of surprised that this would be the first [country] that we went to but it's a huge opportunity," he added.
Recognising the economic disparity in India, he acknowledged that the services would be hard to access for most Indians, who, on an average, make less than Rs 1.5 lakh per year.
Prices for Blade India have not been fixed yet. In USA, Blade's cheapest fares are between $195 and $295 (~Rs 13-21,000) for a five-minute flight from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport. A one-way ticket on Blade One, the company's private jet service from New York to Miami, costs about $ 2,200 (~Rs 1,54,000).
The state government has taken up the cause to ease traffic in Mumbai. Elon Musk's ambitious high-speed mass transportation Hyperloop system is set to make a splash in India. The construction of a 15-km test track between Mumbai and Pune is slated to begin by December, thereby reducing the commute between India's financial capital and the state's cultural capital to 20 minutes.
The country's largest infrastructural project to build the Versova-Bandra Sea-Link was also launched earlier this year. According to the State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), the eight-lane toll bridge is likely to be ready by mid-2023, and would enable commuters to make the commute from one end to the other in 10 minutes instead of the current 90.
While Uber and Rolls Royce are trying to develop flying taxicabs, Blade joins other aviation start-ups trying to cash in on India's growing domestic fliers. A company called JetSetGo has a similar business model wherein Indians can book private jets or helicopters online, while India's Silicon Valley Bengaluru recently started offering helicopter taxi rides to its airport for less than Rs 5,000.
All images in this article are courtesy of Blade, and have been reproduced with permission.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.