Q: Your company recently launched shared air car services, SkyShuttle. How is it doing?
The all new SkyShuttle started in late September with a twice-daily jet shuttle between Mumbai and Bengaluru, and twice-daily heli-shuttle from Juhu airport, located in an upmarket residential suburb of Mumbai, to two industrial towns, Tarapur within Mumbai, and Vapi in Gujarat. The amount of time these services cut is incredible. One of our earliest customers got out of the helishuttle – called me and said “Kanika you’ve changed my life! I spent six-seven hours on the road doing this trip…we did it in two hours today door to door”
For any new product as radical as this, it will take time for people to get used to the product and understand the benefits. Most people find it really hard to believe that they actually can substitute their car for a helicopter. A lot of my friends used to think I am joking when I used to talk about it earlier! Every time I said soon you’re going to be flying instead of driving I got the most absurd reactions and I really don’t blame anyone for it. We are trying to make a new normal and it’s not going to be easy. Over 60 per cent of our SkyShuttle customers to-date are new to jets and helicopters, while 30 per cent are existing JetSetGo clients. The shuttles are predominantly (80 per cent) used by business travelers.
Q: Is the atmosphere ripe in our cities for introducing vertical takeoff and landing machines (VTOLs)?
Most of the metros where we really need VTOLs are no-fly zones and apart from this, they are largely residential hubs and offices. So how do you manage the noise or the safety of both boarding and avoiding the 9-11’s from happening again? And the largest part of the challenge in these cities is that we have severe infrastructure impediments. Our traffic control systems are not geared up to have so many flight devices in the skies either. All of this would mostly make one wonder why SkyShuttle and why would VTOL’s ever work.
Our research and real time experience in the industry has convinced us that with the correct public-private collaboration, the infra and regulatory challenges can be overcome slowly. The atmosphere is not ripe in current day India but SkyShuttle will make it ripe in the years to come.
Q: How do you see the scenario for electric plane?
If you have ever played with a carbon footprint calculator and plugged in your flight history, you have seen how a trip just an hour or two away ballooned your total impact on the environment. All that jet fuel takes a toll, but electric planes may swoop in and help….one day. Globally, nearly five per cent emissions come from flying. The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, an agency within the United Nations, wants to be carbon neutral by 2020, but to get to that goal something has to change.
Tesla and to a lesser extent Nissan, Chevy, and even Toyota with its hybrid Prius made the masses believe in electric cars. Now many companies want flyers to believe in electric planes. Several aviation startups are working to remove expensive, polluting jet fuel from the flight equation and replace it with electric batteries. The idea of electric planes isn’t new, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been thanks to battery improvements. Whilst they may not be able to transport you from Bombay to London they will most definitely enable you to cover short distances of 2/30 nautical miles and land in airports nearer to your final destination with runway lengths as short as 3000 feet.
Q: Your company JetSetGo has earned a major market share in private charter operations in a short span. What were the strategies that helped you achieve this?
Breaking through the opaque private jet industry dominated by offline brokers, we aggregated often-idle jets and helicopters of private owners, managed and maintained these aircrafts and improved their utilization by leasing them out through our online platform. We have been successful in bringing down operating costs and improving efficiency and better productivity from these machines.
Our focus has always been on reducing ownership costs and decreasing users aircraft charter bills. With a one-point objective of achieving these two goals transparently, honestly and ethically we have been able to carve a small niche in the market for ourselves.
Which are the cities where your helicopter and plane services are growing fastest and why?
The metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad drive most of the traffic, it has been interesting to note a gradual increase of travel to and from other tier 2 cities in the recent years. This is largely due to tier 1 cities remaining hubs of business and power. However the gradual increase in tier 2 cities is we believe due to an overall increase in spending power in these cities as well as higher awareness.
Q: How many helicopters and small planes do you have in your fleet? How many do you plan to add in the near future?
We currently have 16 mean machines in our fleet (including jets and helicopters). They range from Turboprop to Airliner jets, so there’s something there for everyone, to suit every requirement. If I had my way I would love to add one every week however we are currently in the midst of negotiating a much larger fleet plan.
Q: Do you think a good infrastructure is lacking to support the air mobility business? What needs to be done to improve the infrastructure?
Regulations and infrastructure are two key areas to resolve, a significant hurdle is a permit as, in general government’s are paranoid to open up airspace to new aerial traffic moving around. Each flight takeoff or landing needs multiple permits from several departments covering fire, police and several other administrative bodies. A single window clearance with nominal charges for all permits could be a key game changer for private aviation.
On the infrastructure front whilst the government is making significant effort towards qualitative and quantitative infrastructure, we still lag behind. Most airports open for a few hours a day, are understaffed in the ATC and not equipped to handle GA/BA. I don’t think increasing the number of airports in India is what the focus should be on. Old in operational airstrips should be made operational, ATC training and man power needs to be increased so airports can remain open for longer durations, un-utilized terminals in existing airports should be used to service GA/BA and so on and so forth.
Q: What about the regulatory environment? Do not the government and regulators need to be more open and liberal to create a favorable environment?
In the words of IATA chief Alexandre de Junica “Government policies are imposing excessive costs on airlines in India and infrastructure constraints are limiting growth.”
Even though the projections show the country’s aviation sector to register 500 million passengers by 2037, infrastructure constraints limit growth while the government policies impose excessive costs.
We need a more conducive environment and regulations to achieve new heights in the aviation sector. Further tax regulations such as keeping aviation turbine fuel out of the GST preview have lead to almost all airlines bleeding. Aviation globally is considered one of the most challenging sectors and then to have 10 different regulators and ministries involved in controlling it at a national level just makes it all the more challenging!
Q: How much is the business restricted by flying zone restrictions?
Flying zone restrictions do not cause a big problem in the business, a bigger problem than the no flying zones are the operational hours at the airports. In our business the ease of flying, lesser wait times and convenience of flying at your own time is what attracts the guests. Different airports have different operational hours, which are revised regularly and sometimes restrict the flying.
Q: Some say that at Rs. 4,000 or so per seat there is a huge and ripe market in India for heli-taxi services but at Rs 50,000 the segment is very limited. Does price sensitivity influence this business?
A reduction in fares shows just how challenging it is. Prices are now 20 percent lower than at launch, Rs 20,000 ($276) to Rs 40,000 one-way for the jet service and Rs 17,000 to Rs 25,000 one-way for the heli shuttle. The fares are far from our ideal of Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000. The company is willing to subsidize the venture for the learning it would bring. From our learning and the utilization of newer machines, we hope to bring down fares as low as Rs 4,000 per trip and put every Indian on an air taxi.
Q: Do you think air taxi services are not easy to sustain in India owing to the high cost of operations, lack of adequate infrastructure, unfavorable regulatory environment and high taxation?
There are several infrastructural woes, considering the air taxies will be 100% electric, India will need a robust electrical grid and a suit of battery charging location. We are yet to crack the code on creating a cheap, long lasting, quick charging battery that is powerful enough to run these commercial rides.
Air taxis would take off from their own sky ports built atop high-rise buildings, constructing a vast network of these stations will be a herculean task in a country where bridges take 20 years to build.
Then there are regulatory and bureaucratic barriers involving approvals, land acquisition, and legal challenges. Even identifying vehicle manufactures, real estate developers, technology developers and others to partner with could prove difficult too.
But nothing good ever came easy so we at SkyShuttle hope to solve all of these issues step by step and work with the government on creating a favorable tax regime to enable a robust eco system in the country.