Luxury helicopter services turn rescuers during lockdown

Asset-light urban air mobility (UAM) company, Blade India, that is the Uber for helicopters, is working on plugging a major gap in the market right now: emergency airlifts and organ transportation.

In March, to fend off further Covid-19 threats, India closed its air space off to commercial flights till April 14, cancelling about 700 flights a week of both foreign and Indian carriers.

This is when the New York-based urban mobility service that set up office in India just last year sprung into action.

Otherwise VIP and luxury chopper companies have had to stop their regular pilot seat service due to the lockdown and have now started catering to emergency and essential travel charters with clearances from local authorities.

“With commercial flights not being in operation, we are keeping our service open for medical emergencies as well,” said Karanpal Singh, partner at Hunch Ventures, the equity investment firm that has partnered with Blade to make India its first international market.

For its regular charter service, it charges about Rs 18,000 per seat including GST, but a company can book out an entire helicopter too.

Captain Simran Singh Tiwana, CEO of Star Air, that has a fleet of 4-5 air crafts and helicopters says that at least 10% more inquiries are coming in for emergency air pick ups and medical movement.

“Since the government regulation states that medical transfers are allowed at this time, demand is going up for it. If partial air traffic movement is allowed soon, the regular charter business will be up and running too,” he said. They are receiving 10-12 queries a day but sometimes that comes from people who want to go from Delhi to Pune. But helicopters can’t do long distances.

Airbus Helicopters that provides efficiencies through technical and flight solutions to companies like Blade has seen an increase in its choppers being used for emergency medical flights with patients. The areas covered have been Himachal Pradesh, the Andaman island, Lakshadweep, Uttarakhand and J&K. Covid-19 healthcare professionals, too, are being moved around in them.

“Upon government directives, a group of about 20 students were lifted from Himachal Pradesh because they were stuck there. Another charter was used for health officials who had to be transported to Leh, Laddakh. We’ve also ferried masks to Leh and Andaman. For now, the assistance is free of charge but procurement of masks comes at a cost,” said Ashish Saraf, head of region, India and South Asia for the company.

Heligo Charters which is in the business of providing onshore helicopter support to corporates, VIPs and to the oil and gas industry recently assisted the Jharkhand government to transport a large quantity of N95 marks from Delhi since they were needed urgently in the state. The company’s CEO, Uday Gelli said that all state governments have helicopters at their disposal and should use them to provide healthcare equipment as well as transport personnel to remote areas within their states.

“These assets can be used more efficiently in fighting the current virus epidemic,” said Gelli. He is also president of the Rotary Wing Society of India.

For Blade, which operates primarily in Maharashtra, will add two new cities to its list soon. Next on the company’s plans are helicopter services in Karnataka and Uttarakhand.

Since the lockdown was announced, Blade’s phones have been ringing nonstop. Inquiries have gone up 300%.Theirs is a heady client list made up of high ranking professionals, lawyers, doctors, expats, bankers and business people with families. While some clients have been chartering it as a family, companies are booking the entire helicopter to charter employees. Business people make up their largest chunk of their customers at 32% followed by corporate clients that are about 28%.

It recently launched its pad and lounge in Juhu. “As compared to taking a commercial flight, the only risk is the pilot and a few service staff who are under stringent safety protocols and our heliports and lounges are sanitised after every flight,” said Singh. To create a heliport, sand land in city centers, the company needs approximately 10,000 sq. ft., of space and permissions.

Next is, the launch a medical evacuation and transfer service with specially designed helicopters and crew trained for air medical services. At present it has a network of four heliports and three helicopters in Maharashtra that has been doing almost 200 flights a month.

But it’s not all hunky dory for the company. Singh feels post the outbreak of the corona virus while inquiries shot up, people are all going to wait and watch for some time before they start flying again.

Given that India has some of the most congested cities in the world, Mumbai and Pune ranking in the top five in 2019, it is possible that the service will find more takers once things ease up. Just last year, Mumbai spent 65% and Pune 59% extra time in traffic and India spent over 1.47 lakh crores annually in traffic.

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