Earlier this month a new helicopter service started between Mumbai-Shirdi-Pune, cutting transit time for a premium
The all-black Airbus H130 takes off from Mumbai’s Juhu Aerodrome in one smooth motion, gliding gently over its runway and grassy fields sprinkled with dilapidated hangars. It soars over the winding Juhu Tara road—filled with tourists gasping for a glimpse of the beach, the luxury hotels and autorickshaws that look like ants—before hovering over the Arabian Sea. The helicopter passes over the majestic Bandra-Worli Sea Link that connects the city’s south to the suburbs, flying over the old city’s high-rise buildings like a scene from a Michael Bay movie.
In about 10 minutes, the chopper floats over the racecourse at Mahalaxmi, a journey that can take an hour or more depending on the vagaries of the city’s traffic, road rage, and infrastructural projects.
This trip from Juhu to the racecourse is just a test run, because the company that’s offering this new chopper service has plans for more serious stuff. If the Mumbai-Pune Expressway cut down travel time between the two cities by hours when it started more than a decade ago, this company intends to bring it down to minutes.
Blade Urban Air Mobility Inc., a US-based company in a joint venture with equity investment firm Hunch Ventures, has just started chopper services between Mumbai and Pune, reducing travel time to under an hour. Given the rise in number of vehicles over the last few years, this journey takes 3 hours or more by road.
It’s also adding the spiritual centre of Shirdi to its portfolio, to make it more appealing not just for the business traveller but also for those seeking divine assistance. Blade’s ambition is to add more sectors and cities once the company is able to, well, take off here.
Blade started operations in the US in 2014, flying in places such as New York, Miami and the Bay area. Its format allowed users to book a seat using crowdsourced networks or charter a flight and its success was built on cutting down travel time at competitive pricing. The cost of flying from the city centre in New York to the airport during peak time is sometimes cheaper than an Uber ride, says Blade founder Rob Wiesenthal, who was in Mumbai recently.
While the cost of flying on the chopper between Mumbai and Pune, about ₹19,900, excluding taxes at the moment, is far more than the taxi ride, the trade-off is the time saved, besides the comfort Blade offers with its lounge services at the two ends. Karan Pal Singh, founder of Hunch, believes the time saved would be worth the cost for high net worth individuals.
Singh hopes to leverage his access to clients through some of the other Hunch portfolio companies, like luxury travel concierge service Quintessentially and TV network Good Times, while also offering corporate packages. “If I have to fly business-class abroad from Pune," he says, “I have to drive for 4-5 hours to Mumbai, check into a hotel and stay overnight. Whereas I sit on a chopper there, I am here in 45 minutes. It makes sense to pay another $300 (around ₹21,300). Flying is not the luxury, but time is. It’s the ease of checking in, ease of arriving, getting served, etc."
“We saw a bigger opportunity here, because it’s (Mumbai) the most congested city in the world. There is also an emerging wealth class, which is incredible. Enough productivity is lost due to weak infrastructure," adds Wiesenthal, who says they have flown about 180,000 customers in the US since their launch in 2014.
Blade will lease the aircraft—it has two six-seaters on service at the moment, operated by Ghodawat Enterprises Pvt. Ltd—over the next few months before it scales up. The shiny choppers, with tinted windows, leather seats, enough legroom for a briefcase, Bose headphones to communicate with the pilot and manage the noise, can reach a height of 10,000ft and a speed of 120 knots.
But within city limits they will need to stay at around 500-700ft in height, because visibility in a hazy city like Mumbai is not always the best. Our 40-minute flight went beyond the racecourse over cluttered Parel and Sewri, the salt pans of Wadala and its smoky chemical factories, the vast greens of the Mumbai Port Trust and its docks. Across the sea, all the way to Alibaug, over its plush bungalows with swimming pools, dark sands, ferries and hills, the ride offers a glimpse of the region that a commercial flight cannot, an additional charm of the service.
“Think about it. If you are going for a weekend holiday, you save 4-8 hours on the room rent you paid," explains Singh.
For frequent road-trippers from Mumbai to Pune, the new options, therefore, are these: Run out of music choices by the time you reach Panvel or get to your destination after one drink and two phone calls—but keep the rising carbon footprint in mind.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.