"Congestion in India is only going to get worse with the increasing urbanisation and urban air mobility is the need of the hour."
Urban Air Mobility (UAM) leverages the sky to better link people to cities and regions, giving them more possibilities to connect. As urban transport heads into the sky, sustainable development of cities becomes efficient and loved ones are no longer quite so far away. Realizing the relevance of UAMs especially in congested urban spaces in India, some firms have started working in the business, leisure and pilgrimage segment of travellers. They are offering a blend of convenience, comfort, luxury, accessibility and safety. With air travel reeling from the pandemic and travellers increasingly preferring exclusive modes of travel, UAM solutions address the need of the hour by providing exclusive, personalized, hassle free and convenient commuting options for consumers. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online Amit Dutta, Managing Director, BLADE India talked about the state of urban air mobility solutions in India and the future of mobility. Excerpts:
The relevance of urban air mobility services in India, given the post COVID-19 scenario.
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The need for Urban Air Mobility has always existed in India and COVID-19 has just further added to that need. Indian cities have consistently ranked among the most congested cities in the world. Around 65 cities in India have an aggregate population of 165 million and road congestion is only expected to get worse as urbanisation increases. We have exhausted our road space and leveraging the skies is the most viable option right now. There are about 22 cars per 1000 people in India compared to 850 in the UK, making India the 4th largest automobile market in the world. And as population and urbanisation increases, congestion will only get worse.
For India, the opportunity of UAM lies in business, pilgrimage and leisure travel, mega events, organ transfers, air ambulances and last-mile delivery. The COVID pandemic has made this concern more evident.
Before the pandemic, work from home was a luxury. Now, after almost 2 years since the first lockdown, nearly 74% Indians prefer working from home with remote working becoming a new trend. Indians save around 2 hours of commute daily due to WFH and they prefer that lifestyle and productivity now. They are moving farther away from the cities giving rise to synthetic suburbs and with UAM, they will have an option to be accessible to the city and have the lifestyle they desire elsewhere. Many of our fliers have moved to their homes in Alibaug, Aamby Valley, Lonavala but with UAM service such as ours, they know they are just 30 minutes away from the city and can get to work quickly when needed.
Lastly, people prioritise safety and hygiene due to COVID-19. Flying Inter and intra-city in minutes through non-crowded vertiports will be the one of the main UAM benefits that people will value more. There will be apprehension in spending hours on the road as people want to reduce the risk of exposure and unnecessary touchpoints.
How has the second wave impacted your business? Do you think people will prefer flying privately?
COVID-19 (both first & second wave) has impacted every industry, especially the travel and tourism sector given the movement curbs. Like any other business, our operations have also been affected. Though at the same time, people have begun to understand the relevance of safety. People will opt for short haul by the seat air transport system such as ours, as it helps them reach their destination fast, with minimal exposure and touchpoints. The need for urban air mobility is only likely to intensify with people’s inclinations towards safety and efficiency increasing.
Change in consumer behaviour/ preference vis a vis travelling in India post pandemic.
One of the biggest learnings, both personally and professionally, has been that time and health is indeed a luxury and needs to be prioritized at all times. There is a mass mindset change that focuses more on the quality of living, mental health and wellbeing and spending time with family. This behaviour change translates to people opting for frequent short getaways and willingness to pay a premium for quality services that reduce the risk. UAM services will thus further enable quick getaways and domestic tourism in general.
Furthermore, technology has become a bigger and an essential part of our daily lives. With connectivity through digital and social media, people are conducting meetings virtually, and no longer want to travel for hours via road or air. Thus, working remotely and moving farther away from the cities will also see an upward trend. UAM enables this change in behaviour even more as travellers will opt for short haul air mobility services that offer convenience, flexibility, accessibility, and safety.
Advantages of heli- charter services in today’s times.
Safety and hygiene will be the foremost advantage. UAM services like ours (both by the seat and charter services) can aid domestic tourism, religious pilgrimage sector and business travel segment. By providing safe and quick means to travel, people might be more open to travelling. Weekend getaways can pick up again post the second lockdown much like the other sectors with personalised and holistic UAM service such as ours.
You have recently announced your medevac services. What do you think is the future of medevac and air ambulances? Do you plan to have a dedicated offering in the near future as well?
Given the healthcare crisis that we are undergoing, the importance of air ambulances is being felt especially where patients are critical, and time is of essence. In metro cities where road ambulances take considerable time to reach, air ambulances seem to be more valuable and efficient. Nearly 23% of all trauma in India is associated with the lack of proper transportation of the patients. Accessibility remains a major concern too, it is to bridge this gap we have recently announced our medevac services – BLADE Care in collaboration with MyHealthcare. The services have been designed to provide an end-to-end transportation of patients with teams of doctors, paramedics, and patients. BLADE Care helps people in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities fly to the metros for immediate and better healthcare.
Timely medical aid is one of the key benefits of UAM. The US markets are more mature when it comes to air medevacs, but we believe BLADE Care is a step in introducing that in the Indian market. Air medevacs will play a key role in our operations moving forward too.
What are the trends you foresee in your industry over the next two years? Two years, because we know it is going to take that long for it to rebound.
Congestion in India is only going to get worse with the increasing urbanisation and urban air mobility is the need of the hour. Leading manufacturers over the world are testing EVA (Electric Vertical Aircraft) prototypes and are looking at UAM as the future of mobility. Cities such as Dubai, Singapore, Linz, LA have already made roadmaps to introduce UAM and use of EVAs to tackle congestion. With low noise and carbon footprint, EVAs will further lower the fare of air taxis, making UAM more accessible to the masses. Our JV partner, BLADE USA has partnered with EVA manufacturers WISK and BETA Technologies to operate 30 and 20 of their EVAs respectively across their network. BLADE is also helping its EVA partners get the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification.
With over $5 billion invested in EVA prototype development worldwide, governments and organisations are leaving no stone unturned in making UAM the next big disruption. We have partnered with Airbus to work together on the potential of UAM in India and making Vertical aircrafts more accessible here. Just as the metros are seen as the main mode of ground transit to tackle congestion, environment friendly EVAs will make for a new aerial transit system for the masses. The future of the industry is definitely unfolding at a fast pace.
Future plans – New routes? Any collaboration with state governments?
We are determined to make India a more mature UAM market as the need definitely exists. We have been in discussion with EVA manufacturers and exploring opportunities for the development of a sustainable UAM support infrastructure in the country. People value time efficiency and safety even more now and have taken up to UAM services such as ours. We are working with state governments to introduce vertical air mobility and in the future electric aircrafts to boost leisure, business, and religious travel.