With Blade choppers, cut the jam, fly from Mumbai to Pune in 45 minutes

Blade has proved that intra-city air travel has immense potential, especially in a place like Mumbai that is notorious for its traffic congestion

With Blade choppers, cut the jam, fly from Mumbai to Pune in 45 minutes
Blade choppers promise to revolutionise intra-city travel. Image courtesy: flyblade.in

Mumbai to Pune in 40-45 minutes. Impossible? Not any more, with taxis now taking to the air too.

US-based flight aggregator Blade Urban Air Mobility Inc, in partnership with investment firm Hunch Ventures, forayed into the Indian market in December 2018. The idea was to target the business, tourism, religious and health segments. Flights were planned to start from March 2019 but had to be delayed because of elections and untimely rains.

Blade has been operating helicopter taxi services in US cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in India, preliminary routes were started recently. One can book a ride through an app, much like Ola or Uber, or through the Blade India website. Blade acts as the aggregator, while the flights are the responsibility of a local operator.   

Blade chopper flights today connect India's financial and film capital Mumbai, the industrial city Pune and the pilgrimage centre Shirdi with each other. According to Blade India managing director Amit Dutta, since its launch in late November 2019, Blade flights have been operating at a load factor of 80%, reported AIN Online. Load factor refers to the percentage of available seating capacity of an aircraft that is filled. Dutta added that a large number of customers had flown more than once.

The aircraft used for these flights are the Airbus H130 and Bell 407 helicopters. The H130 is an intermediate, single-engine helicopter that can carry one pilot and six-seven passengers, or two pilots and up to five passengers.

Airbus H130

The H130 has a range of 327 nautical miles or 605.6 km and a fast cruise speed of 237 kmph. The maximum altitude it can reach is 23,000 feet, though according to a Forbes report, the highest it can climb within city limits in India is 700 feet, and during a Mumbai-Pune flight, the Blade chopper went up to a maximum altitude of 3,500 feet. This much lower flight altitude as compared to regular aeroplanes, which normally cruise at 30,000 feet or higher, allows a breathtaking view of the scenery outside, which one usually misses from an aeroplane.

The H130 is the quietest helicopter in its category in the market, with a noise signature 6 decibels below the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements. Its Fenestron shrouded tail rotor and automatic variable rotor speed control contribute significantly to its low noise. The Safran Arriel 2D turbine engine incorporates a new generation dual-channel Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) system with a third independent and automatic back-up channel.    

The H130 is equipped with Vehicle and Engine Multifunction Display (VEMD), which is integrated into the instrument panel. This significantly cuts the pilot’s workload, thereby enhancing flight safety. The Active Vibration Control System and improved air-conditioning make riding an H130 a very comfortable experience. The helicopter also has the most economical operating cost per seat in its class.

Bell 407

The Bell 407 is a four-blade, single-engine civil utility helicopter that has a capacity of one pilot and six passengers. It has a range of 337 nautical miles or 624 km at long range cruise speed (VLRC) and can fly at a cruise speed of 246 kmph. This helicopter is powered by Rolls Royce engine, dual-channel FADEC system and auto light features. Its high resolution LED displays ensure that clarity is never a problem, even in direct sunlight. It has the widest cabin door in its class and more than 100 cubic feet of flexible passenger space.

Every passenger on a Blade flight is provided iPads for in-flight entertainment and a pair of headphones with mics to cancel out the rotor noise and communicate with each other.  

Another attractive feature of the Blade services in India is the swanky Blade lounge. The lounges are located a few metres from the helipad and boast of big screens, bars, couches and dining facilities. These lounges considerably enhance the comfort offered by the Blade services.

Relief from traffic jams

Amar Abrol, the former Air Asia India CEO, who was appointed the head of Blade's India operations, pointed out that one can go from the John F Kennedy airport in New York to deep inside Manhattan through the aerial route, but not yet from the Mumbai airport to Colaba, around 30 km apart (nearly the same distance as that between JFK and Manhattan).

However, an experiment carried out by Blade proved that air travel within the city has immense potential, especially in a city like Mumbai that is notorious for its traffic congestion. In December last year, Blade flew a one-way intra-city helicopter shuttle to take people to a U2 concert at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai. According to the AIN report, 14 sorties were made for 89 passengers and the travelling time was cut significantly.    

Another Indian city, which can benefit massively from air taxi services, is Bangalore. It was ranked as the world's most traffic-congested city in a recent report by a Dutch real-time traffic information and services company. Blade India recently announced its expansion to Bangalore. To start with, it will offer charter services between Bangalore and locations within Karnataka. It also has plans to provide by-the-seat within Bangalore to beat the traffic and connect select destinations within the state.   

The company is also thinking about starting a regular shuttle air taxi service between Mumbai and Pune, which will compress a four-to-five-hour road journey into 37 minutes. Pune figures in the list of top-five most traffic-congested cities in the world along with Bangalore and Mumbai.

Many more advantages...

According to Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal, this helicopter service will help in reducing the rush at large airports, Business Today reported. He estimated that one successful route in India can generate more revenue for Blade than what is made through its US operations in a year.  

Commercial helicopter services will also smaller towns more accessible. Also, it will be easier to travel to places that may not afford a full-fledged airport due to its remote location and inhospitable terrain. Abrol noted that in 15 years, IndiGo -- the biggest domestic airline in terms of market share -- connected only about 50 cities, but there are thousands more with people who are willing to spend for saving time.

A bit too costly

Notwithstanding all the advantages, Blade services are quite costly and are useful for high net worth individuals. To fly from Mumbai to Pune, a person has to shell out nearly Rs 20,000. The pricing, however, is dynamic depending upon demand and bulk booking. The company has aimed to ensure that the price of flights is markedly lower than that of private chartered planes.  

Recently, Blade expanded its Mumbai operations to include another take-off point, according to a report in The Economic Times. The new heliport at the Juhu Aerodrome follows the existing one at Mahalaxmi Racecourse and offers flyers the convenience of availing their nearest heliport. This is good news for international travellers who want to use the Blade services as well. This is because the Juhu Aerodrome is situated at a distance of merely about 5 km from the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

New routes and timings between Mumbai, Pune and Shirdi were also introduced. The new flight schedule commenced from January 27, 2020 and the price for a seat has been fixed at Rs 12,000.      

Helicopter travel is yet to become popular in India. Consumer helicopters still don't exist in the country. Karanpal Singh, founder, Hunch Ventures, points out that there are only 250 helicopters in the country at present and most of them are meant for the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) or for other off-shore activity. The rest of the choppers are for political and private use. There is a need to have a policy for using helicopters for commercial travel.