No visit to India’s Silicon City, Bengaluru, in recent years has been complete without listening to a lengthy diatribe about the city’s intolerable traffic jams. The heli-taxi service, launched on March 5th 2018 was, therefore, a development just waiting to happen. But is this an idea that is set to crash land before it even takes off or is this the mobility alternative that might just relieve the city’s congested roads?

The Essentials

Here are the bare bone facts. The new heli-taxi uses a sturdy Bell 407 chopper which seats six to ferry passengers from Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport to Electronic City, Phase 1. It slashes travel time from an onerous two hours on the road to a rapid fire 15 minutes by air. It’s not a full time service though. Instead, it is scheduled to operate in two shifts—6: 30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.—that coincide with peak business hours. Like a regular airline there’s even have a baggage allowance of up to 15 kg.

It’s priced at a shade over Rs 4,000 per seat which given the time saved, compares quite favorably with car rentals.

But is this New?

Buried in the general excitement was news that the government plans to operationalize 90 helipads located in multi-storeyed buildings across Bengaluru. Of these, only one so far has DGCA approval. At the launch, Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, declared, “We hope that Bengaluru will lead the way for other Indian cities to adopt such services. My appeal to the operators is to keep their prices competitive with air conditioned road taxis.”

It’s not the first time that helicopter services have been used in India though, so what’s all the noise and excitement about? Some other smaller cities in India have had helicopter services (Pawan Hans, anyone?) for decades now. Helicopter flights from Lakshadweep-Kochi and Guwahati-Shillong are well established and have proven extremely useful alternatives for people looking to travel between these cities in the quickest possible way. In early August this year, the Himachal Pradesh state government, in partnership with Pawan Hans, launched a twice weekly heli-taxi service between Shimla and Chandigarh. With this, travel times were slashed from nearly 4 hours by road to just about 20 minutes by air.

The major, and obvious, difference between these examples and the Bengaluru heli-taxi service is that the latter targets business travelers, while other heli service experiments have either been more tourist-oriented or have had a public interest motive.

The UDAN Experiment

The original, big picture agenda of the government backed UDAN scheme was to promote regional connectivity by developing unserved and underserved airports. The full form of the acronym is “Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik” which loosely translated means “Let the Country’s Common Man Fly.” In other words, the public service motivation.

The most recent plan under the UDAN scheme is to launch helicopter services to boost tourism in various states in the Himalayas. Under this new plan, Uttarakhand will be the first state where such services are expected to roll-out, with the government declaring its intention of linking popular tourist destinations like Almora, Nainital and Dehradun. In the meantime, Himachal Pradesh is looking to provide easy access to Dharamshala, Kullu, Simla, and Manali.

Such initiatives are set to boost tourism and provide a fillip to the helicopter industry in India. Airbus, for instance, currently operates about 100 helicopters in India and is active in the heli-tourism and emergency services space. Over time, such heli-services are expected to be launched in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Assam as well.

Uber’s Bid for an Intra-City Air Taxi Service

Uber, and other ride-hailing services, are already colonizing India’s roads. Now, Uber is looking skywards as it hopes to ply its services in India’s airspace as well. On the sidelines of the country’s first ever Global Mobility Summit held in early September, Uber formally presented its plan to launch an intra-city air taxi service. By 2023, Dallas and Los Angeles are slated to be the first two cities where Uber will launch Uber Air, its commercial air taxi services. Uber is now looking to expand this service internationally. In the meantime, it has shortlisted five countries—India, France, Brazil, Japan, and Australia—in its quest to set up the first Uber Air City outside the US.

Uber Elevate, the company’s air taxi division, has a clear set of requirements for selecting the third city where it will launch its services. Among the criteria are that it be a densely populated city with over 2 million people and with serious road traffic congestion. Another consideration is having a government with a positive, forward thinking attitude to urban mobility solutions.

In a statement, the company declared, “Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru are some of the most congested cities in the world, where travelling even a few kilometers can take over an hour. Uber Air offers tremendous potential to help create a transportation option that goes over congestion, instead of adding to it.” However, even if one of these three cities is selected, Uber will have to overcome several infrastructural, bureaucratic, and regulatory hurdles before its vertical take-off and landing (VTOLs) air taxis populate the Indian skies.

Points to Ponder

When talking of heli-taxi services, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo immediately springs to mind. It is similar in many ways to Bengaluru; a bustling city with a population of about 12 million, urban sprawl, and… crippling congestion. Today, Sao Paulo has about 700 helicopters and 400 odd helipads. By providing effective and affordable mobility options to combat the city’s clogged roads and often expensive taxi services, these helicopter services are addressing a real need.

As the Indian government aggressively promotes UDAN, the experiment in Bengaluru takes off, and other cities mull the option of taking to the skies to relieve congestion on their already overworked road networks, the action is hotting up. But several questions remain. For instance, how would the use of heli- taxi services for daily commutes differ from these other heli services, and can the former be sustained? What is needed to make heli services a reality and how has Bangalore acted in ways that other cities, even Mumbai, have not? What are the enablers—physical, infrastructural, institutional, policy, legislation, organizational, financial—that will allow a helicopter taxi service to really take off?

Until these questions are successfully answered, helicopter services in India are likely to stay grounded.

By Amrita Shetty, Manager – Communications & Content, Mobility

About Frost & Sullivan

For six decades, Frost & Sullivan has been world-renowned for its role in helping investors, corporate leaders and governments navigate economic changes and identify disruptive technologies, Mega Trends, new business models and companies to action, resulting in a continuous flow of growth opportunities to drive future success.

Frost & Sullivan

For six decades, Frost & Sullivan has been world-renowned for its role in helping investors, corporate leaders and governments navigate economic changes and identify disruptive technologies, Mega Trends, new business models and companies to action, resulting in a continuous flow of growth opportunities to drive future success.

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