Imagine hopping into a chopper and breezing from Mumbai to Pune in half an hour for a business meeting, instead of being stuck in a six-hour road trip via the highway… or reaching your favourite resort in Chikmagalur in 20 minutes, taking in the beauty of mountains and lakes, without the hassle of a traffic jam or a long, tedious drive. All this is now possible in India, where a special helicopter service brought to India by Karanpal Singh, Founder, Hunch Ventures and Blade India, for those who value time and convenience above all else, is a luxury that is fast becoming a necessity. Enjoy a light snack or coffee in a special lounge before you board, once in your seat, get your own iPad to enjoy music (Jio Saavn is a partner), coffee in hand, and peruse the countryside with stunning aerial vistas…happy with the feeling that you are not one of those stuck in their cars on an interminable commute. And once you land, you’re whisked away to your destination in a BMW or an Audi if you so wish!
A helicopter trip with Blade is quite the perfect commute for the ‘accomplished traveller’, a term coined by hotelier Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts. “The more you travel, the fewer the materialistic luxuries you want,” says Karanpal Singh, from his home in Barbil, a small mining town in Odisha, on the border of Jharkhand. “The world has now started to understand and appreciate food, spending time by yourself, being with the family. I live in a town that is so small that we are building the first hospital here as a CSR initiative. At 100 sq km, it’s the highest tax-paying place in the country. People fly in to work every day – the traffic is so bad that flying is the only option – 8-10 hours on the road versus a 20-minute flight. Most people would call this a luxury but it’s the luxury of time, efficiency, and accessibility.”Karanpal Singh, Founder Hunch Ventures and BLADE India
The entrepreneur who comes from a mining family, was born and brought up in Odisha, but now lives in Delhi, although with the Covid-19 lockdowns, he’s been happy staying put in Odisha, and expanding the footprint of his business, stage by stage. Karanpal realized the need for a helicopter service when he was in the US. Instead of spending 2-3 hours on the road, he would take a chopper into New York City and be in the heart of Manhattan in five minutes. “Plus it’s a fraction of the cost of a luxury Uber,” he says. “I saw the need for Blade in India, and reached out to the best company in the world doing this.” So he reached out to the CEO of Fly Blade USA, and formed a 50/50 JV with them in India, launching in November 2019. “From the top 10 most congested cities in the world, five of them are in India,” says Karanpal. “I saw the applicability of this, and the future of this – and the fact that with our largest population, we have the lowest infrastructure. We now need to explore the skies.”
Maybe the days of ride-hailing ‘flying taxis’ aren’t such a pipe dream after all, as the world looks at options to decongest its cities. Karanpal says that with the new eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft), more than a 100 companies have joined in the fray to build these aircraft (they can be helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, or volocopters, there are literally multiple variants). “You can take off and land anywhere,” he says. “So the market is huge. This will be the way we travel in the future.”
For Karanpal, it made sense to partner with the New York-based Blade. “It was solid; we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “People tell me that it’s sexy and fashionable, but at least I don’t have to spend hours on the road. I am served a nice coffee that I can take with me, there are pleasant people to speak to, and the best part is, I don’t have to go and check into an airport and just sit there.”A black BLADE Bell 407 helicopter
He operates a fleet of four helicopters presently, and is adding 2-3 more, among them Bells, Airbuses, and Agusta coming in (two helicopters with five seats, one with six seats, and one, a Sikorsky, with 11 seats, the kind used by heads of state). “Now, after Covid-19, people have got a jolt,” he says. “They don’t want to travel through public spaces, and want to reduce their exposure to the virus. Plus, they want to spend more time with their families.” He says that just as Skype and video calls pre-Covid existed but were not the norm, helicopter travel will also become essential. “We will use quality above all else,” he says. “Hygiene, cleanliness, consciousness, and health will be big issues.” Safety measures include regular testing of the crew, contactless temperature checks of passengers and crew, masks and face shields for all aboard, sanitization of lounges and cars, and aircraft decontamination with an airline-grade fogging system after each flight.
Blade India is ready to meet challenges. Karanpal says he’s “agnostic” to the machine – it must be safe to fly and match his standards. “It’s the service that we wrap around it that makes us Blade,” he says. He agrees that helicopters are inherently an executive lifestyle product. “They have already been designed with an executive requirement, and luxuries in mind. They just need tweaking.” He has partnered with Quintessentially as concierge partners. “We need the softer touches which Quintessentially does so well,” he says. “Adding beverages, an iPad, a space to park your bag – it’s the service you bring to the table.”BLADE India Mahalaxmi Lounge in Mumbai
The beauty of travelling via helicopter with a company like Blade is that pre-flight, you get to relax in a lounge where you’re served beverages and snacks; then comes the flight – very short, on average 20 minutes – and you’re at your destination within 15-20 minutes of landing. You can literally take off from anywhere. “In Pune, we took a private piece of land and converted it into a helipad, which we call Heliports,” says Karanpal. “We can fly out to rooftops, grounds, any level place that is 100 ft x 100 ft.” He says that India actually has a lot of helipads that are seldom used. “We will be piggybacking on present infrastructure, so we don’t really need to create a lot of space,” he says. “The government can give us small bits of land and we will convert them into Heliports. The dynamics are such that we can land anywhere.”
There’s an app to book your seat (it costs less than a Business Class ticket but more than an Economy fare, per sector), plus there is a pick-up and drop service, and a future tie-up with Uber. Blade says they will fly no matter what – whether it’s a full flight or just one person on the flight. And if there’s extra luggage, the Blade team sends a car a day earlier to pick up the passenger’s luggage so by the time he or she reaches, their luggage is waiting for them.
With a present tie-up with the Ritz-Carlton hotel group and the Oxford Golf Resort, Karanpal will be forging more partnerships with resorts in Hampi and Chikmagalur, where one can literally land in their garden. So now, one is able to buy a complete package from Blade (with partners such as Quintessentially and travel management company Tamarind Global) where you literally fly in, from the aircraft to the reception. Presently, there are Mumbai-Pune flights, as well as flights to and from Shirdi. For Hampi, Karanpal is creating routes that will fly over the Kabini River, so that passengers can take in the scenic splendour of the trip. (Most helicopter rides don’t exceed flight times of one and a half hours, and they fly at an altitude of 3,500-5,000 feet.)The comfortable and luxurious interiors of a BLADE helicopter
With the lion’s share of Blade customers being business travellers, slowly there’s a space being carved out for leisure-seekers. “If I get a customer who refuses to drive 6-7 hours for a meeting, and wants to save time, this is the guy who will start using the service for leisure, and buy a booklet from us – which gives him a price advantage,” says Karanpal. “We have a 65 percent customer repeat rate. They are enjoying our service, and 7 out of 10 times, they are taking the same sector. So with our offer you can buy 10 tickets at a better price than an individual seat. (Say you buy 30 tickets, you can save as much as Rs 3,000 per ticket).
Karanpal plans to expand aggressively and aims to transform the industry. “We have the tools,” he says. “We are starting in Karnataka, and we will add two more states next year. I for one, will never drive this sector again!” In terms of safety, he says that Blade adheres to the best standards that come out of the US, in India. “Our helicopters are audited regularly; we have great people on our team,” he says. “Our pilots are either army or commercial, plus I have someone who’s ex-Deccan Airways, who heads operations for Blade, and another who’s been a helicopter specialist all his life. We have a solid team as far as safety is concerned.” In terms of flying via a helicopter itself, it would be safer than Delhi roads! “It’s a precision machine,” he says. “Aviation standards in general are very high; there is no repair, only replacement. Our machines are brand-new and well-maintained, and we are very safe, but it’s a machine that can have issues. We ensure that any issues are mitigated.”
Karanpal is presently learning to fly a helicopter himself, as Covid-19 has pinned him down in one place, namely Odisha. “This will be the most productive time of my life yet,” he says. “So many opportunities will come up, because a lot of people went into a shell because of the pandemic. Nothing in the world could have promoted healthcare, digitization, communication, and education, more than this whole Covid scenario.” It’s also made being a ‘digital nomad’ far easier. “It used to sound like a fancy term, but now, that is what we all are!” he laughs.The interiors of a BLADE - Bell 407
His typical customer at Blade is the ‘accomplished traveller’ we referred to earlier. “It starts on the top of a pyramid,” he says. “Luxuries become necessities. Once, ACs were a luxury. I went to college in the 1940s jeep. Today we are flying instead of driving.” And as Steve Jobs once said, Consumers don’t know what they have until they have it. “Once people start using Blade, we won’t be driving for so many hours,” he says. And he hasn’t even started with Blade in the Capital, but says it will happen soon. “Our aim is to make sure you have a Heliport within 30 minutes from where you are. You can take off from anywhere, so the market is huge.”
Even in terms of medical evacuations, Blade will be starting this service shortly “It’s a very important argument to have this service,” says Karanpal. “Imagine if you need to be on the road for eight hours to get to the nearest hospital. A helicopter can pick you up from anywhere.” And this would be specially equipped to accommodate a stretcher, and life-saving equipment.
And what kind of trips would Karanpal like to do for leisure? “I chase tropical waters anywhere,” he says. “Last year I was in Ethiopia – I take my kids diving and sailing, and I want to take them to Norway to watch killer whales. The thing with helicopters is that they can fly you conveniently within an hour of its radius. I would love to go to my Coorg property in a helicopter.”
And what’s next for Blade? “There is this fixed wing jet called BladeOne – which does New York to Miami, and New York to L.A. in the US,” he says. “You will be hearing about it very soon as one of our services in India.” We can’t wait to take off. https://flyblade.in/
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A luxury and fashion journalist with 25 years of experience in publishing and magazine journalism, I have edited some of India’s top fashion and luxury magazines. I got my BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and went on to receive my Master’s in English and French from the University of Strasbourg, France. I have also studied German and Film. I live in Gurugram, India, and look forward to once again exploring our world with a new-found freedom.
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