features How helicopters are playing a role in the air taxi concept

The air taxi concept is a foundational element in many people’s vision of the future of urban air mobility. Today, helicopters are playing a key role in honing the service.
Avatar By Dan Parsons | January 7, 2020

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 53 seconds.

Cruising at 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level over a patchwork of concrete rooftops lining congested, narrow streets, I flew from the western edge of Mexico City to the airport on the opposite edge of the city in about 15 minutes.

It can take well over an hour to complete the 17-mile (27-kilometer) trip by car, travelling from the hilly, upscale Interlomas neighborhood through the congested streets of this city of 21 million people, and out to the airport on the other side.

Beating the crowds in Mexico City. Companies like Voom are using helicopters to ferry customers, who have booked through an app, across busy cities. Anthony Pecchi Photo

It was the second ferry flight of the day for Voom pilot Rodolfo Reyes, a former Mexican navy helicopter pilot with 6,000 hours at the stick, who was flying us in a sleek black-and-orange Bell 505 Jet Ranger X. Voom has been providing nigh-on-demand helicopter mobility in Mexico City since 2018, and has seen relative success flying passengers between five heliports surrounding the city center.

It works much like calling an Uber or Lyft, to use a commonly understood service as a stand-in. My wife and I each downloaded the Voom app to our phones, filled out a brief profile and registered a credit card. The day before our flight, we opened the app, chose Mexico City and selected our preferred origin heliport (Montes Urales), destination (airport) and desired flight time (1 p.m.).

At 3,999 Pesos, or about $200, the trip is not cheap, but the convenience and time savings make sense for a certain clientele. That’s the sales pitch Airbus’s helicopter ridesharing service Voom makes for its urban air mobility operations currently available in Mexico City; São Paulo, Brazil; and San Francisco.

The app is still in beta testing, so my wife and I had to sign up separately for the same flight and timeslot. Our preferred time was not available from the closest heliport to our hotel, requiring a 40-minute Uber from where were staying to where we would pick up the helicopter, which underscored the difficulty of going only a few miles within the sprawling city limits.

A layered approach

Voom is one part of a multi-pronged effort by Airbus to position itself for the emerging eVTOL and urban air mobility market. Using helicopters, the company is ironing out the logistical challenges of providing efficient, safe, relatively affordable air mobility in major urban centers before next-generation aircraft come online. And Airbus is just one of a variety of companies, from Uber to Sikorsky and Bell, who are all on the urban mobility bandwagon and are using conventional rotorcraft as a proof of concept.

A concept image of the Bell Nexus in operation over a downtown environment. Uber is one of the key potential customers for the in-development aircraft, which could see use in the planned Uber Air aerial ridesharing service. Bell Image

Approaches to urban air mobility in the present tense differ. Uber Copter offers only one route — from lower Manhattan to JFK airport — which it is using simply as a data gathering project with no plans to expand. Blade, the world’s largest charter helicopter service, offers seats on flights starting at $195, and is focused on streamlining its booking service and passenger experience regardless of what aircraft operators choose to fly.

Voom does not mirror Uber’s user experience, exactly — a helicopter will not come to pick you up at your house — and it is nearly on-demand. Riders can sign up for flights on most routes that leave every hour between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. In Mexico City, 60 percent of its reservations are made the same day, said Clément Monnet, CEO of Voom.

With Voom, travelers pay on a per-seat basis, and in order to keep prices affordable, the platform pools passengers traveling to the same destination. To schedule a trip with Voom, travelers can use the Voom app or book online. Passengers can book flights up to one hour before departure. On the day of travel, the passenger simply checks in at the designated helipad 15 minutes before boarding time.

Voom works with existing Airbus-vetted third-party helicopter operators and helipads to deliver its service, and is not an operator. The Voom platform connects passengers with certified helicopter operators in the Voom network.

“Some of these operators have been doing different types of missions, from surveillance to aerial surveys, [and] EMS [emergency medical services],” Monnet said.

To handle the volume of aerial traffic required to make a system like Uber Air work, a network of skyports will need to be built across cities. Uber Image

San Francisco is a launchpad for Voom to establish operations elsewhere in the U.S., but the company plans to collect extensive data on its Bay Area operation before choosing its next city, Monnet said. The company has flown tens of thousands of passengers over São Paulo, Brazil, since launching its helicopter service there in 2017. It began operations in Mexico City the following year. It operates a network of six helipads in and around both cities.

In addition to using Voom to focus on the booking and logistics piece of urban air mobility, Airbus is also developing vehicles through the City Airbus and Vahana programs. Another business unit is developing the necessary infrastructure to allow both manned and unmanned air taxis to fly in dense urban areas safely, while yet another is working on urban air traffic management.

“The goal is for us to move people from A to B in a convenient way through the air,” Monnet said. “It happens to be helicopters today, but we definitely want to do it with eVTOLs tomorrow, working closely with Airbus on how to make that happen so we are safe, green, quiet and efficient.”

Fly the future today

Blade, the world’s largest helicopter ridesharing service provider, invites its passengers to “fly the future today.” The company works with operators to provide booking and logistics services in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, the Hamptons and it now has three passenger lounges in India, according to CEO Rob Wiesenthal.

Like Voom, Blade doesn’t own any equipment. It offers established operators a booking service through its mobile app and website, while helping them optimize efficiency.

“You take that infrastructure; you take that technology, the on-the-ground expertise from 100,000 users of the brand, and you have an ecosystem of people flying in three dimensions using rotorcraft today,” Wiesenthal told Vertical in a recent interview. “We believe that trusted brands that have user bases of people who have already flown will be the first to be willing to try next generation aircraft.”

Operators and system providers are testing out the on-demand aerial transport service in major urban centers such as New York City. Sheldon Cohen Photo

Blade’s biggest-selling products are its flights between Manhattan and New York City’s major airports, on which a single seat (one-way) costs $195.

These types of limited range flights are likely to be the starting point for eVTOL travel, said Wiesenthal, while a market will remain for helicopter taxi service to farther flung destinations.

The company is banking on there being a “cohabitation” phase in which conventional rotorcraft retain some longer-haul routes and other specialized missions while eVTOL aircraft are phased into operation.

“Blade will still be flying conventional aircraft, conventional rotorcraft, for a while,” he said. “In the future, eVTOL will be viable for flying from the west side of Manhattan to Newark Airport.”

For a variety of reasons, there are about 12 or 14 cities in the world in which urban air mobility makes sense, is an efficient mode of transportation, or could reasonably expect to turn a profit, he said.

“As eVTOL becomes more prevalent and people realize that it’s safe, it’s quiet, it’s carbon neutral and it’s less expensive, we’ll have more opportunities to land,” he said. “For now, it’s relegated to [using] the pre-existing infrastructure.”

Voom and Blade use apps to allow customers to make bookings, identifying possible takeoff and landing options and providing available times of transport – as well as the cost.

Right now, there simply are not enough safe and publicly acceptable places to land to make urban air mobility feasible in any but the largest cities, he said. Helicopters are too loud and intrusive for them to operate at any real volume in less populous areas. In a sense, widespread helicopter mobility is limited by the technology, not by range or maneuverability, but by the noise it creates.

“The question is does the lower noise footprint open people up to having landing zones in places they would previously not have wanted one?” he said. “Our addressable market is driven by where you can land. L.A. is an incredible helicopter market. Unfortunately there are very few places to land.”

San Francisco also is an “incredible helicopter market” but the available routes are to and from the suburbs of Palo Alto, Oakland, Monterey and Napa.

“If you want to go from Palo Alto to downtown San Francisco, that’s a tough one,” he said.

New York City is the largest revenue market in the world for charter helicopter travel. San Francisco and Los Angeles pale in comparison, and cannot yet support a standalone helicopter ridesharing service, Wiesenthal said. As an add-on, leaning on the advertising, logistical and technical personnel based on the East Coast, expansion to L.A. made sense, he said.

“We are lucky to have a big, profitable business in the Northeast,” he said. “We could not be successful starting Blade if we started in San Francisco. It would have been a fool’s errand.”

A look into the future? CityAirbus is one of the urban air mobility concepts Airbus is developing. Here, the type is shown flying above Sao Paulo, Brazil. Airbus Image

Blade also is thinking multi-modal in its approach to providing travel booking and mobility services. It has an agreement with American Airlines that would allow a passenger to fly a Blade helicopter to LAX, board a plane, fly to JFK, get on an American Airlines shuttle to another Blade helicopter and then take that rotorcraft directly to any one of three heliports in New York City.

“The American [Airlines] relationship is extremely important for us,” Wiesenthal said. “We recognized we had a lot of customers that wanted to fly from Wall Street to San Francisco. That definitely jumpstarted us, but we could never have started this company in one of those West Coast cities.”

Seed markets

For companies like Voom, Blade and to some extent Uber, the aircraft passengers are booking for their travel is almost immaterial. Whether helicopter, eVTOL or some other revolutionary vertical-lift platform, these companies are pioneering the ways operators perform logistics, determine pricing, book users and providing customer service.

“All they have to do is fly for us and provide a good, reliable, safe service,” Wiesenthal said.

Blade already has a “seed market” of consumers who are familiar with intra-urban rotorcraft travel, which should translate into a base of early adopters when more affordable eVTOL aircraft come online and infrastructure expands to allow service in more locations, Wiesenthal said. Uber believes the enormous user base will likewise translate into a market for airborne ridesharing when it begins to seamlessly offer the services as an option in its app after 2023, according to Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate.

Rooftop helipads provide vertical takeoff and landing aircraft access to defense urban environments. Voom Photo

“For us, the seed market is Uber,” he said. “We have about 100 million people around the world who are actively using the platform on a daily basis.”

Uber envisions its platform evolving from car ridesharing to a sort of trip optimization service where a user inputs locations A and B and the app decides not only the best route, but the most efficient forms of transportation. Eventually, traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn could involve a scooter, a car, a helicopter, an eVTOL or some combination of those modes, said Allison.

The main limiting factor to scaling up helicopter urban mobility is the cost of operating and maintaining existing rotorcraft, he said. Uber calculates at least a one-third reduction in seat-per-mile cost is necessary to make the service affordable to a mass market.

Helicopter operating costs are driven by the price of the air vehicle itself, the cost of maintaining it through a lengthy service life, and fuel consumption.

“An all-electric vehicle is going to have a much lower fuel cost per mile,” said Allison.

“We don’t actually think that helicopters are a very scalable service,” he said. “With the operational cost associated with helicopters, it’s difficult to expand in many areas.”

The infrastructure has to keep up with the increased availability of advanced aircraft because an affordable, quiet, eco-friendly eVTOL is useless if it has nowhere to land.

Voom passengers leave their aircraft after arriving at their destination. The company has flown tens of thousands of passengers over Sao Paulo, Brazil, since launching its helicopter service there in 2017. Voom Photo

“We’re not really focused on an expansion of [Uber] Copter at this point,” said Allison. “We’re focused on getting it really right on this route we’re running right now … on the Lower Manhattan-to-JFK route. We think that’s really critical.”

Uber is using the route to tweak and optimize the app’s user experience and the logistical footprint of the helicopter operation, gathering data that will eventually be rolled into the eVTOL-era version of its service.

“All of that work will be leveraged down the road and turned into the scalable eVTOL network as it becomes available,” he said.

Uber plans for demo flights out of its Frisco, Texas, heliport sometime next year with eVTOL flights to begin in 2023. Airbus is on a similar timeline with its City Airbus unmanned air taxi, as is Bell with its Nexus ducted-fan hexacopter. Dozens of other companies are vying to be the eVTOL aircraft of choice for urban air mobility.

In the meantime, helicopters continue to do the heavy lifting and likely will through Wiesenthal’s “cohabitation phase” and into the future.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that a seat on a Blade flight cost $1,200.

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