Hate sitting in traffic to and from the airport? Just order your own helicopter! On-demand helicopter services such as Voom, Uber Copter and Blade offer flights in some U.S. cities for the relatively affordable cost of about $200-$300, booked via an app or online.
In late September, Airbus-owned helicopter service Voom launched in the U.S. in the San Francisco Bay Area, after starting in Brazil in 2017 and expanding throughout Latin America. Clément Monnet, CEO of Voom, said the service will appeal to travelers because of its convenience, reliability and speed (Voom gets you to the airport in 20 minutes). “Given the increasing number of people moving to cities and metro areas, we don’t need to wait to use the air to commute,” he said.
He’s right. Overall, the market is ripe for on-demand helicopter services, as there is increasing demand and available supply. On the supply side, the airspace, helicopters and pilots are available, and it’s a strong fit for the sharing economy: if homes and cars can be monetized and shared, why can’t we do the same for helicopters? Industry regulation is also relatively friendly, making it attractive for suppliers to operate and make money. On the demand side, the speed, convenience and luxury experience aspects make this a draw. Roads are becoming more congested and traveling by helicopter is cool, while traveling by car or train isn’t. In addition, the price point is attractive, especially for relatively price-inelastic business travelers. Voom charges $225 per ride from San Francisco airport to Oakland airport; to put that into perspective, black or luxury on-demand car service for the same route can be $150-$200, or more.
However, there are a few challenges that service providers must address for the offering to gain momentum:
- Infrastructure: According to Monnet, about 40% of demand in São Paulo, Brazil is for flights from 5-8 p.m., and about 50% of demand in Mexico City is for flights on Thursday and Friday evenings. This high concentration of demand requires an adequate supply of both helicopters and helipads on corresponding times.
- Public acceptance: While government regulation is not an impediment for operators, Monnet points out that public acceptance is critical for success. To mitigate the potential nuisance caused by helicopters flying over homes and offices, operators must have dedicated corridors for operations (for example, for its San Francisco-Oakland service, Voom will fly over the bay). If approved by the FAA, operators could also fly close to or over highways, which could have a dual purpose of serving as a guerrilla marketing tactic targeted at commuters stuck in traffic below. In addition, Airbus is prototyping a new generation of eco-friendly vehicles, eVTOLs (electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles). These electric “flying cars” will be quieter and have a significantly smaller carbon footprint, making customer adoption and public acceptance more likely.
- Convenience: While the helicopter ride itself may be short, the aggregate time saving for the end-to-end journey—getting to the helipad, waiting, checking in, boarding, flying, landing and commuting to your final destination—might be less than you’d expect. Other factors such as weather delays and challenges with taking conference calls or doing business on the go could be roadblocks for corporate travelers. If helicopters aren’t seen as convenient, travelers might revert to traditional means of commuting once the novelty wears off.
There’s no doubt that on-demand helicopter services have enormous potential and value waiting to be unlocked. However, the speed with which they gain traction depends largely on how quickly service providers can address these important headwinds.