How Blade promises to make urban air mobility a reality
During peak rush hour traffic, New York City’s Blade can whisk you from downtown Manhattan to JFK, EWR, or LGA airports in just a few minutes — for the cost of a luxury SUV ride.
To learn more about how the company that is redefining urban air mobility, I spoke with Blade’s head of corporate development and business processes Will Heyburn on this week’s episode of the What’s NEXT Podcast. In the process, he also talked about how Blade is laying the infrastructure for making affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly air travel part of a new era of smart cities.
From Midtown Manhattan, where the average vehicle crawls along at just 4.9 miles per hour, it can take travelers up to two hours to drive to JKF. With that kind of a slog, many travelers would prefer to fly. But, until recently, that option has been the exclusive domain of extremely affluent jet-setters and corporate high-flyers — and a fantasy for everyone else.
But now, Blade is making affordable urban flight is a reality. Four years ago, Blade founder and CEO Rob Wiesenthal, made a basic observation that traditional helicopter charters were simply inefficient. The average flight carried just 1.7 people and cost around $6,000 to fly 90 miles.
“Helicopters were flying from base, picking up a person, taking them to a destination, and flying back to base — a very inefficient system,” Will added. “We realized that if we made this system smarter — if you could increase the utilization — it would be possible to bring the price down to something that resembled what people were already paying for ground transportation.”
That observation turned out to be quite prescient. Nearly out of thin air, Blade developed a market for helicopter ride-sharing, which has helped drive prices low enough for corporate fliers to justify the expense. Today, the ticket price from Manhattan to New York airports is $195, or a flat $95 with an annual membership.
As prices have come down, Blade has seen its customer numbers soar. Since launching in 2014, the app-based air mobility service has grown its user base to more than 170,000, and it now operates in seven U.S. states. Its primary markets include New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but this fall the company is venturing overseas with the start of service in Mumbai, India.
Today, Blade arranges more flights in and out of city centers than any other company in the United States — offering not only helicopter flights but also chartered seaplane and airplane services.
The future of flight in urban areas
Blade sees itself not only as a viable alternative to ground solutions, but also as a key piece of the multi-modal mobility solution for connected transportation in smart cities.
“The ground traffic situation is a catalyst for people looking to the air,” Will told me. “Over time, you’re going to see technologies evolve in parallel — greater utilization of cars as people turn to ride-sharing versus private cars, and more efficient aviation with the transition to electric flight.”
Today, Blade is laying the groundwork for that transition. “We think that by perfecting the system today — getting people comfortable with aviation as a mode, showing them how much more efficient it can be — we can move the world to that urban air mobility future more quickly,” he says.
Transportation as a service
Blade is asset-light, which means it doesn’t actually own or operate its aircraft. Rather, it maintains dedicated access to pilots and aircraft through partnerships with local operators. In essence, it is a new form of transportation-as-a-service. What makes Blade unique is its experience — and the company’s laser focus on seamless, comfortable, and safe air travel.
A traveler’s first physical touchpoint on a Blade excursion is the Blade Lounge. This is an urban oasis where customers can chat with fellow travelers while they sip rosé and await departure.
“We like to say you can’t fly into Manhattan without going through or around a Blade lounge,” Will says. “We’ve put a lot of thought our lounges — maximize passenger check-in, baggage processing, and the overall customer experience.”
Blade also operates without a pre-defined schedule — users simply tell the Blade app when they need to arrive, and the company takes care of the rest.
In many cases, Blade has gone great lengths to offer true curb-to-curb — literally, concourse-to-helicopter — service. For instance, it recently partnered with American Airlines to provide personalized pickups and drop-offs at airport helipads.
Fly into LAX on an American Airlines flight, for example, and a representative will meet you right at the gate, take you down the stairs to the tarmac, and drive you straight to your helicopter. “It’s an experience that no one else can replicate,” Will says.
Air mobility for everyone
Blade’s trajectory as a company is being supercharged by consumer demand for affordability, interest in new service locales, and for environmental sustainability. To help fill seats, Blade even allows users to crowdsource their own flights — launching a trip and selling the remaining seats to other users on the Blade app.
That service has become a business in its own right, and Blade often schedules its own flights in response. Recent flights have taken travelers to events like Coachella and the NBA Finals, and to popular travel spots such as Nantucket and the Hamptons.
In addition to responding to the marketplace, Blade is cognizant of increasing public interest for lessening the environmental impact of air travel. While the company has had success with conventional technology, it’s looking for alternatives.
“Every decision Blade has made — paramount among them being an asset-light platform — has been designed so that we’re ready and waiting to transition to eVTOL,” Will says.
Electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) are essentially electric helicopters and have been at the forefront of development efforts for air taxi service worldwide.
Major aircraft manufacturers, including Airbus, a Blade investor, are currently flight testing eVTOLs. These electric birds are expected available in limited commercial capacity within the next three or four years. The aircraft promise to be quieter than conventional helicopters.
Because they run more efficiently, while sourcing fuel more sustainably, eVTOLs can be flown at a lower cost. This fact, Will says, is the key to making urban air mobility mainstream.
“Today, there’s a relatively short list of cities that can bear the relatively higher cost of a helicopter seat, and have the appropriate infrastructure to fly them,” Will says. “Once we introduce eVTOL and bring that price point down, however, that list becomes much, much longer.”
As urban electric flight evolves, consumers may soon find themselves aloft in flying cars. If companies like Blade can make that transition affordable and sustainable, the sky is the limit.
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