Listen to this story
A 5-Minute Ride Proves the Future of Air Travel Is Already Here
The Urban Air Mobility vehicle is already waiting as I step from the New York City curbside into the waiting lounge. The room is sleek, equipped with couches and an open bar, but there’s no time for me to luxuriate. An attendant dressed in black ushers me through a door and out onto a platform that projects over the Hudson River. Another attendant helps me and a second passenger strap in — and then we’re off. Amid a thrumming downwash of air, we levitate, and the bustle of the city falls away beneath us.
Through the bubble windows I look down on sailboats, brownstone courtyards, bustling avenues. We’re zooming along at 95 miles per hour, just 800 feet off the ground, low enough that all the everyday details stand out, so that everything seems more like flying in a dream than the normal experience of aviation. And, like a good dream, it’s over too soon: the sensation of dropping, the ground growing closer. We touch down on a landing pad, the doors pop open, and another attendant helps us out. We’ve traveled 13 miles across the congested city — a distance that would have taken an hour by limo and even longer by train — in just five minutes.
This is the kind of travel that science fiction has long promised: levitating vehicles that whisk impatient humans from here to there with ease. But mine was not an imaginary voyage. Short hop vertical travel is here for real, and while coming advances in technology will certainly transform it (some 135 companies are currently competing to field the world’s first viable electronic vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOL), current technology can already provide the necessary capabilities. In this case, my journey was carried out in a Bell 407GX helicopter chartered by Blade Urban Air Mobility, a company that operates 22 core routes from 11 bases around the country and plans to start service in India this fall.
To call Blade’s helicopters “urban air mobility” is not simply a question of pasting a new label on an old technology. Blade is pioneering a transportation network that moves people through the air in a new way, and it’s serving as the prototype for how eVTOL systems will work in the future. That’s a unique and valuable skill set for the manufacturers who someday want to build the underlying infrastructure, which is why major companies Airbus, Bell, and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky division have all partnered with Blade.
“We’re learning from Blade in order to help establish what our product needs to look like as we move into eVTOL aircraft,” says Susan Griffin, executive vice president of commercial business at Bell Textron, who believes production eVTOL aircraft could be on the scene as early as the “mid-2020s.”
Blade was founded in 2015 as a way for well-heeled Manhattanites to zip out to the Hamptons and back. But like Uber, what set the company apart was less what they were doing than how they were doing it. Instead of owning aircraft and chartering them out to customers by the hour, like incumbent operators, they were chartering the aircraft and selling off the seats individually. This meant that they could put more butts in each aircraft, but required the company to figure out how to sell all those seats to a new kind of customer, many of whom had never been on a helicopter before.
One successful anxiety-easing tactic: offering passengers wine before and during each flight.
To do this, Blade designed an appealing brand, created a sexy marketing campaign, and launched an app to let customers book from their smartphones. But other challenges remained. Unlike traditional helicopter operators, which charter whole helicopters at a time, Blade has to deal with each passenger as an individual customer. The interior of a helicopter is a fairly cramped space, and while members of a charter group usually know each other and are comfortable being in close contact, random strangers are often not. “Most people, depending on their height, are actually intertwining their legs with the person in front of them,” says Simon McLaren, Blade’s director of communications. “That’s highly personal.” One successful anxiety-easing tactic: offering passengers wine before and during each flight.
Blade’s business model seems to be working. In the four years since its first flight, the company has expanded prolifically, at least geographically speaking (the company didn’t share passenger numbers). It now operates in seven states, with offerings that include seaplanes and jets as well as helicopters. At its core, however, the company remains focused on short-hop vertical transport. “Our most important product is flying people in and out of city centers, which we do more of than any other company in the country,” McLaren says.
This is precisely the transportation segment that the coming wave of eVTOL aircraft will be best suited to serve. “When we talk about eVTOL, we don’t expect these things to be flying everywhere,” says Bell’s Griffin. “We’re looking at an infrastructure within cities.”
Whether piloted by humans or autonomous, flying taxis will likely remain a luxury service into the foreseeable future. While the coming generation of eVTOLs will save money by flying without a pilot, they will be smaller than today’s helicopters so will carry fewer passengers per trip. “We do not believe it’s going to be inexpensive for a long time,” McLaren says.
“Flying cars” of various stripes have been rolled out from time to time over the last half-century, but none has ever made it past the prototype stage. While a production-ready model remains elusive, however, recent years have seen a tremendous upsurge in investment. Bell’s entrant in the eVTOL horse race is Nexus, a four-passenger air taxi that will fly on six 8-foot-wide ducted-fan rotors when it starts operation in 2023. Airbus, meanwhile, has multiple eVTOLS under development, including the single-passenger Vahana, an electric self-piloting vehicle that flew to 16 feet last January, and City Airbus, a four-passenger “urban air taxi” technology demonstrator with four 9-foot rotor blades that made its first tethered takeoff in Germany in May. Sikorsky is preparing for the eVTOL era by developing Matrix, a technology that allows existing helicopters to be adapted to autonomous control.
Each of the manufacturers Blade has partnered with is working with the company in a different way. In 2018, Airbus inked a strategic partnership agreement with Blade that would give the aerospace giant access to Blade’s expertise in setting up on-demand flights. “By partnering with Blade, we are setting a strong foundation for the next step, which will be the successful deployment of electric vertical take-off and landing [eVTOL] systems,” said Airbus official Matthieu Louvot in a press statement issued at the time. A year later, Sikorsky inked a deal to provide helicopters to Blade through its New York subsidiary, AAG, and to establish a working group to explore how Sikorsky could take advantage of Blade’s consumer, cockpit and operator technology.
“We do not believe it’s going to be inexpensive for a long time.”
Bell, meanwhile, is “working with them to understand what the passenger experience is and where we could develop products to better meet their needs,” says Griffin. Says McLaren: “we probably have given Bell over 150 ideas of things we felt that they should do to help make the experience more consumer-friendly.”
But vehicle design is only half of the equation. Assuming that engineers do manage to work out the considerable technical challenges inherent in the eVTOL concept, operators will still face a whole other layer of difficulty: anti-noise activists.
Here, too, Blade has a head start. Its first base of operation, East Hampton, happens to be home to a vigorous and outspoken citizen’s group, the Quiet Skies Coalition. Patricia Currie, a Sag Harbor resident active in the group, has little use for the noisy helicopters that buzz over her house for the summer, or for the privileged people who ride them. “The 4 o’clock bell goes and they hop on the helicopter,” she says. “It’s a quick ride to partyland.” Her group asked the town to impose restrictions on when the airport could be used, to at least cut down on noise at night. But when the town tried, the move was shut down by a court ruling. Now Currie and her allies want to shut down the airport for good when its current obligations to the FAA run out in 2021. “That day I’m going to go with a bunch of people and flowers and put a lock on the gate,” she promises.
Keen to mollify its opposition, Blade uses quieter models of helicopter on its East Hampton flights and voluntarily restricts its operations to after 7.15am. “Our job is to be a good citizen,” McLaren says. “We realize that using the airport is a privilege, and to try to work with the local community to come up with solutions so the airport stays open.” In the meantime, it’s preparing for the worst-case scenario by spreading its traffic to alternate airports nearby.
Whether Blade wins or loses the battle for East Hampton Airport, the company will have gained years worth of experience in dealing with obstreperous neighbors — a potentially invaluable skill set, once passenger-carrying drones start buzzing hither and yon around metropolises worldwide. “Noise abatement is obviously a significant challenge,” says Griffin.
For its part, Blade is betting that once it arrives, air taxi technology will be such an improvement over today’s helicopters that it will be a win both for passengers and for those on the ground who dread losing their peace and quiet to 24/7 droning. “We believe eVTOL is going to be quiet,” McLaren says. “We would like to show people a path to quieter air transportation, which we know is going to be a reality. It’s not an if, it’s a when.”