Mumbai: 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.
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.