The sign of success in New York is a weekend home in the Hamptons. But what if it took forever to reach the Hamptons on weekends? That used to be a killjoy some years ago. Not anymore. And for that, well-heeled New Yorkers have to thank the BLADE Urban Air Mobility, Inc. In 2014, former Sony and Warner Music Group executive Rob Wiesenthal and GroupMe co-founder Steve Martocci founded this New York-based startup, and since then it has reached South Florida, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
And beginning this week, it is in India. BLADE has kicked off operations from Mumbai, with daily trips to Pune and Shirdi, and between Pune and Shirdi. In India, its first overseas market, BLADE has formed a joint venture—BLADE India—with Delhi-based Hunch Ventures, an equity investment firm that has deployed over $100 million in consumer-facing business in India, to launch the service.
BLADE, backed by Airbus and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt among others, operates on an asset-light model, partnering with chopper operators to offer on-demand flights on its app. Think of it as Uber pool, but in the air. One can either buy individual seats on a flight or charter the full helicopter.
As part of BLADE’s pilot Urban Air Mobility programme in India, choppers depart from its heliport and lounge at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai and fly to its lounges and heliports in Pune’s Mundhwa, and Shirdi, with return flights. There’s also a service between Pune and Shirdi. A one-way ticket on the Mumbai-Shirdi route starts at ₹21,900; on the Mumbai-Pune route it is ₹19,900; and on the Pune-Shirdi route ₹18,900. All prices are devoid of GST.
BLADE CEO Wiesenthal, 53, and Hunch Ventures founder Karanpal Singh, 42, say BLADE doesn’t merely offer transportation, but a complete experiential service. Given India’s population, immense market opportunity and growing economy, it seemed to be an obvious choice to tap as BLADE’s first overseas market, they tell Fortune India in an interview. Edited excerpts:
What was the idea behind starting a service like BLADE?
Wiesenthal: Sony's corporate flight department, including helicopters, reported to me as CFO. After studying the economics, I realised that helicopter travel in the U.S. was very expensive due primarily to (i) low utilisation (average 1.4 passengers per trip), (ii) inefficient dispatch (almost all trips originated and ended at the aircraft's base), and (iii) over-reliance on large and expensive cabin-class helicopters that were designed primarily for long-range offshore transportation, not urban air mobility. I saw an untapped opportunity to use technology to make short-distance aviation more accessible and BLADE was born.
What are the challenges you faced?
Wiesenthal: Before I founded BLADE in 2014, most people thought of helicopter travel as an inaccessible luxury. We were successful in bringing down the price point to be competitive with ground alternatives (in NYC, BLADE's $195 airport product costs less than a typical car service), but it was a huge challenge to get consumers to start thinking of helicopters as an accessible and more efficient alternative to ground transport vs. a tool reserved only for the very wealthy.
Aviation is a difficult market in India, where consolidation is happening now. Do you think this was the right time for you to enter? How soon would you be profitable?
Singh: Traffic congestion between cities, road infrastructure are factors that take a toll on an individual’s productivity. We are no longer in an era when ‘time is money’ was considered a luxury, today time rules everything – your business, your life, your space, your lifestyle, your productivity, your peace of mind. BLADE India is a service that is designed to offer a customer the luxury of convenience. No long drives to the airport or one-hour deadline for check in. No long lines at airport check in or at security. A service like BLADE is the need of the hour.
BLADE is an asset light company that partners with reputed operators. We aim to be pioneers in the short-haul urban air mobility space in India. Much focus has been given to build the right ecosystem for BLADE India—experiential lounges next to helipads, partnering with like-minded brands that cater to a similar HNW audience—every aspect carefully crafted to offer the luxury of convenience to the customer. We hope to cut short our time to break even, given the tremendous response we are receiving from our launch market.
How are the rules different in India?
Singh: BLADE is partnered with reputed helicopter operators, who are selected by a carefully designed screening process. The operator partners acquire requisite permissions and guidelines set by DGCA, for conducting smooth and safe operations for all customers. BLADE's utmost priority is customer safety and comfort hence it will only fly between sunrise and sunset.
How different would BLADE's services in India be from that in the U.S.?
Wiesenthal: Our service in India will be consistent with the incredibly high bar we set in the U.S.: stylish lounges at each take-off and landing point, impeccable customer service, and in-depth safety vetting of all aircraft operator partners. All of this available through the same, intuitive app-based booking platform used in the U.S.
Which are the sectors you plan to expand to?
Singh: BLADE is of value to every individual who values time, convenience, and money. The service will begin with metropolitan cities and leisure/ religious destinations that are highly congested, to make traveling less time consuming and more convenient for customers. It aims to eventually offer services on intra-city route to easy daily commute.