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A helicopter app for the wealthy plans to tackle Mumbai's traffic

A he...

Posted: Dec 4, 2018 2:00 PM
Updated: Dec 4, 2018 2:00 PM

A helicopter app for the wealthy has picked India's financial capital Mumbai as its first city outside the United States.

Blade allows users to book a helicopter trip between New York City and the Hamptons for $795, or shorter flights in and around Manhattan and other cities like Miami and Los Angeles.

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It will start offering a similar on-demand service in Mumbai early next year, the company announced on Tuesday.

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.

The company is setting up a local subsidiary, Blade India, in partnership with Indian investment firm Hunch Ventures. It will be headed by Amar Abrol, former CEO of Malaysian budget airline AirAsia.

"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.

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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