The government’s new drone policy, announced last month, is not only going to encourage the adoption of drones in India, but is also expected to push the growth of the urban air mobility segment in India, Karanpal Singh, Founder, BLADE India, told Moneycontrol in an interview.
BLADE India is one of the largest helicopter operators in India. Singh said that through the drone policy and the vertical aviation policy, the government is reviving the dormant helicopter market in India, which is on the verge of growing considerably in the coming years.
Before COVID-19, his company was seeing a 65 percent re-booking rate from customers, and it will once again target similar numbers, once they restart operations from October 4, he said.
The government through the drone policy plans to set up air taxis in India. Are you looking at diversifying operations to include drones as well?
Singh: I don't know if you want to call it an air taxi, but yes we are looking at air taxis as one of our verticals.
We are building the technology to accommodate vertical flying. We want to be a platform that offers the option to book helicopters or Evtols (electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or an electric helicopter) or unmanned aerial vehicles (drones or UAVs).
We are looking at becoming a significant player in the electric vertical mobility space.
We've been talking to every manufacturer to give us electric helicopters and UAVs. We're going to see these vertical electric vehicles much sooner than we thought.
How will the switch to drones or electric helicopters help grow your service?
Singh: Firstly, it brings down the carbon footprint. Electric helicopters or drones are going to be considerably quieter.
The general design of a drone or an electric helicopter is a lot safer than conventional helicopters as they don’t have a fuel tank.
Further, the switch to electric will bring down the price of operations considerably, and that will open up a whole new segment.
These are the concerns that have not allowed the helicopter market to really take off. These issues will be addressed with the switch to electric flying vehicles.
The government has pushed for the growth of the airline market in India and it is not even promoting the drone market in India. Why do you think the helicopter market is ignored and what can the government do to promote this industry?
Singh: I don't think the helicopter market is left out. I think vertical aviation is the subject that helicopters would come under.
By addressing the vertical aviation market and vertical flying through drones, the government is actually encouraging the segment. While the government has not singled out the helicopter market, they are certainly pushing the vertical aviation market.
What more can the government do in order to promote the market?
Singh: We, at Blade, have now set up a task force with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and there is a lot of dialogue going with the government.
As more players enter the segment, there will be lot more people flying inter-city and intra-city in India.
Historically, the helicopter market in India has been quite small. What was your motivation behind starting a charter services in the helicopter segment in India?
Singh: What we are setting up is a platform for vertical aviation. Helicopters are the medium today. It could be Evtol (electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or an electric helicopter) or drones or UAVs in the future.
We’re focusing on vertical aviation because in short-haul aviation, having large aircraft do not make sense and flying larger planes take a lot of infrastructure.
Vertical aviation is designed to fulfil the short-haul need, which is basically converting a drive of 2-5 hours into 15-20 minutes’ flight.
So what we are building is to solve the short-haul aviation issue.
Coming back to the helicopter market, you’re actually right, we have 280 helicopters in India in the private space.
The greater New York area has about 400 helicopters, and if you take the whole state, there are around 1,100 helicopters.
So, yes, it's a much smaller market in India, because helicopters have always been the high net worth individual stuff.
What we are trying to do is to democratise what we're trying to use, make it accessible to the consumers, not necessarily only to the ultra-high net individuals.
What is the size of your fleet? How do you think the market will grow in the coming years?
Singh: Right now, we have 29 helicopters registered with us.
While we do operate our own helicopters as well, we are largely a platform that connects supply and demand. We work with all the partners in the industry which have unused helicopters and we help them sweat their assets better.
We have seen a 65 percent repeat rate on our business. We grew almost 300 percent every month for the couple of months we were operational before the outbreak of COVID-19.
We noticed that once people used our services, they couldn’t go back to driving for seven-eight hours.
The emergence of electric vehicles that can be used for vertical flying is going to change a few things. It’s going to bring the price down considerably, and the lower the price gets, the more accessible it becomes. It opens up that much wider a market.
How would the rates you currently offer compare to the cost of taking a flight?
Singh: So, the Mumbai-Pune sector that we've been flying, if you drive the distance, it will take you anywhere between 5-8 hours. If you fly with us, it will take you between 35 and 45 minutes.
If you were to drive today, and you book a taxi, anything above a (Toyota) Innova would cost around Rs 6,000-7,000 and it will take seven hours of your time.
If you fly in a helicopter, it's going to take you 35 minutes. Now, it will cost you around Rs 8,000, which is the minimum fare we offer.
Given the current rates you are offering, how are you managing to meet the costs of operating your helicopters in India where ATF prices are at an all-time high?
Singh: In the past, when the customer would look at using a helicopter, they would have to charter an entire helicopter, or would probably have to pay for both the to-and-fro journey. In many instances, they might have to pay for the helicopter to be brought in from a third location as well.
What we do is we allow customers to use a service that makes you buy only one seat, so you don't have to pay for the full helicopter.
We use our technology to crowdsource people to use our service and have used data to identify routes where there is demand for our service.
We have a lot of sister concerns in the luxury and consumer space that we pull data from to crowdsource our seats. We make it much cheaper than anyone else in the market.
What is the target audience for the charter helicopter service in India? How has the demographics changed in the past few years, and how will it be in the next couple of years?
Singh: The early adopters of our services have been the people who are hard- pressed for time.
We are not just people looking at business travellers. We are also looking at the leisure segment, especially foreign travellers to India.
Anybody paying $300 - $500 for a room would not mind spending for the services we offer. I think the application to our services is widespread.
We are targeting not only people willing to travel for business but also people who are travelling for leisure, pilgrimage, etc.
What routes are you targeting now and when do you expect to restart operations?
Singh: We have opened bookings for our services from September 21, for our by-the-seat helicopter services in Maharashtra operating Mumbai – Pune – Amby Valley.
Bookings for the same have begun and operations will begin from October 4, 2021.
We are also looking to launch in Karnataka very soon. We are in discussions with many governments who want to connect off-beat locations and business destinations.
We are also working with hotels and are now starting off a service in Maharashtra that flies to a hotel directly. So, hotels will now bundle it into their programmes.
Are you looking at launching a sort of commercial service as well, connecting destinations that will operate on a regular basis, let’s say a bi-weekly or bi-daily service? Are you also looking to take part in the government’s regional connectivity scheme UDAAN?
Singh: I think governments across India are quite receptive to the idea of urban air mobility. We've been in active discussions with many state governments. I think, very soon, we will have an opportunity to think of that as of now.
We are not actively looking at the routes being offered under UDAAN. What we are concentrating on is the parts that are left out, if it's from an airport to an airport journey, we are not the service, but if it's from a city to inter or intra city, we can help you out.