RIDE-HAILING APPS are hardly new, and neither are helicopter flights, but the combination of the two is still rare. Uber is among the companies hoping to change that.
Since June 9th frequent users of its app can reserve a seat on an Uber Copter. The new service features a helicopter flight between Lower Manhatten, in New York, and the city’s JFK airport. Skipping rush-hour traffic costs customers between $200 and $225, but saves them a couple of hours. That is how long it can take to drive the distance in heavy traffic; Uber Copter will cover it in 8 minutes.
Uber is not the first to launch such a service. The Airbus-owned Voom offers in-app bookings of helicopter flights in the perpetually congested São Paulo and Mexico City. These helicopter services allow the companies to gain in-air experience before the prospective launch of large-scale air-taxi fleets in the future. They want to find out when during the day they should take off, which potential customers are willing to pay, and how they can move their passengers to and through future heliports. Gathering data and gaining experience now might give them an edge over their competitors once the air-taxi market takes off.
Others are still waiting for the development of better aircraft before launching air-taxi services. Compared to traditional helicopters, electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft (in effect, flying cars) are quieter and might require less maintenance, says Robin Lineberger, an aerospace consultant at Deloitte. This makes them more likely to be accepted by local residents and more attractive to operators because of lower costs. But while flying cars have been creating a lot of buzz, none of them are yet ready for commercial use. More than 70 companies, including Boeing and Airbus, are still developing and testing aircraft.
The market potential is significant, according to a recent study by Booz Allen Hamilton, a consultancy. Enough Americans, the authors argue, would be willing to pay for faster rides for the air-taxi market to be worth at least $2.5bn for the first few years of operation. They estimate the fare for a flight with a 5-seat eVOLT aircraft at $6.25 per passenger mile, lower than that of a helicopter flight with Voom, which costs about $10 a mile per passenger. Fully autonomous and pilotless flying cars could operate at even lower prices. Catching a regular cab still costs passengers less than $3 per mile.
After overcoming technical hurdles, electric air taxis must still be licensed by regulators. Uber hopes that its air-taxi service, Uber Air, which will use piloted eVTOL aircraft, will be allowed to take off in 2023. Airbus is developing similar aircraft but has not yet announced a start date for air taxis. Lilium, a German manufacturer of the vehicles, anticipates being fully operational in several cities around the world by 2025. If electric air-taxis become a reality so soon, hailing traditional helicopters via an app might be a short-lived trend.