App-based US helicopter rides company, Blade is launching operations in western India from March 2019, its first international venture outside its home base. Blade has tied up with Indian VC firm Hunch Ventures and will be in a 50:50 partnership.
The company has also roped in ex-AirAsia India CEO Amar Abrol as consultant to shape up the venture. Blade is the largest arranger of flights for civilian travel in the US and offers a unique customer experience through its various Blade lounges and airport experience.
In its first phase – which its CEO Rob Wiesenthal puts as a ‘pilot phase’ – Blade will operate its flights within Mumbai – that is between Juhu and Mahalaxmi. Its inter-city flights will be between Mumbai-Pune and also from Mumbai to the holy city of Shirdi, a distance of 166 km and 300 km, respectively, that the chopper rides will cut down to barely a little over half-an-hour decongesting these corridors and also giving a much-needed reprieve to the commuters as increasing urban mobility is becoming a challenge with growing congestion and lack of infrastructure in Mumbai.
The comfort, of course comes at a price. Though Blade maintains that it will be cheaper than what the existing operators are selling in the market. Not putting absolute numbers to the pricing, Wiesenthal said that in terms of ratios Blade has consistently been able to get the cost of travel down in the US as it sells more seats. He quotes the example of five-minute flight from Manhattan to John F Kennedy Airport that is now selling at $195 from a previous price of $895. And he sees similar trend be replicated in India.
Blade is targeting the HNI segment that is not even a percent of the entire population, usually cost per seat for a charter operator in India is Rs 70,000 per head but it is usually sold much below this price around Rs 15,000 – Rs 20,000 per head. Existing operators, though, feel that it will not be very easy for Blade to replicate the US model in India as it has its challenges.
“Blade is a great subscription-based model. But India has its own challenges for helicopter operators. First of course there is cash burn that is involved, then there are infrastructure issues as the support that heli-operators need is not really there, most of the city monuments are not under the permissible list of aerial tours and then the no-fly zones that restrict air movement,” said one of the charter operators in the country.
But Wiesenthal, who has led some big merger and acquisition transactions in his corporate career, said he is aware of the challenges of the Indian market and he has had discussions with Indian civil aviation authorities and that the Indian partner and Blade are well capitalised to digest the initial losses.