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Bringing in a small salve to India’s problem of urban transportation, New York-based Blade is all set to commence operations in the country with Blade India, a joint venture between Blade and Indian investors Hunch Ventures.
Blade is essentially the Uber of aviation. The app-based flight aggregator provides a software platform through which people can book charter flights on a pay per seat model. The company has been successfully running its operations in the United States, but its arrival in India could not have been more timely.
India – one of the fastest growing economies of the world – has less than 350 helicopters catering to a population of 1.3 billion. Distance and time spent on the road bear an uneasy relation. On any given day, one can see a number of helicopters holding private and non-scheduled operator’s permits (NSOPs) parked at Mumbai’s Juhu aerodrome, while millions deal with the ugly urban transportation problem outside its gates.
Helicopters servicing the offshore oil-and-gas industry fly hundreds of sorties daily from the same aerodrome with hardly any capacity to spare for urban air mobility, even for the customers who can afford it. As per a 2017 estimate, the city of Mumbai alone accounts for over 57,000 high net-worth individuals (HNI) and 28 of the 119 billionaires in India. Although a few helicopters are owned and operated under the NSOP charter by billionaires, there has been no system in place to either add or tap spare capacity for a vertical mobility solution. Blade India plans to bridge this “friction” between city pairs, while providing an end-to-end travel experience.
Pune and Mumbai, rated by Forbes Magazine as two of world’s most congested cities, fall on one such route. Fly Blade co-founder Rob Wiesenthal believes that Blade India’s app-based service will cut down the six-hour drive from Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi Race Course or Juhu heliport to Pune into a 30-minute aerial hop.
Other featured destinations on its website include Mumbai-Shirdi (a highly frequented religious destination) and Pune-Shirdi, available Monday through Saturday from sunrise to sunset. A visit to the Blade India website through the app on Nov. 3, 2019 turned out “No scheduled flights at the moment” to either Pune or Mumbai, indicating that the service is yet to be actively available or subscribed.
Capacity to meet demand, guaranteed availability of the service, air traffic congestion around Mumbai and regulatory permits to operate to locations hitherto inaccessible to charter helicopters are expected to present challenges in the near term. A helicopter shuttle connecting Bengaluru International Airport to the city by Thumby Aviation in 2018 and another by Deccan Aviation in 2008 faced stiff headwinds, which soon ran the services aground.
Blade, on the other hand, does not own or operate the helicopters in its service. Its website states that “the operators who own, manage, maintain and operate the helicopters have been specifically chosen to work with Blade India based on a consistent high level of safety standards, equipment maintenance programs, and conservative operating protocols. They have been vetted by third-party rotorcraft industry experts.”
While India is yet to reap the full-spectrum benefits of vertical flight, if Blade’s efforts succeed, it could trigger the beginning of a much-needed disruption in the country’s urban air mobility space.