While Uber has initiated talks with the India government about the possibility of doing flying taxi services within the country, local player JetSetGo Aviation has launched a more humble first step: SkyShuttle is offering scheduled business jet and helicopter flights between and within cities in India.

JetSetGo is by no means the unicorn Uber is, but in four years of operation, the startup has earned recognition as the “Uber of Indian skies.” Breaking through the opaque private jet industry dominated by offline brokers, the company aggregates often-idle jets and helicopters of private owners, maintains these aircrafts and improves their utilization by leasing them out through its online platform.

The new SkyShuttle started in late September with 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 “life changing” for people, said JetSetGo founder Kanika Tekriwal in an interview with Skift.

“What we learnt from people is that previously they couldn’t do day trips to Bengaluru from Mumbai, because the airport in Bengaluru is located outside the city centre and the whole travel time for them would be around six hours, including the flight and road travel to the city. Whereas, we land in a private airport right in the city, so we’ve got that down to three hours,” she said.

“Same with Vapi and Tarupur — these are areas with high traffic density and travel by road usually takes two to three hours. We’ve reduced that by a third.”

A Foot in the Door of Future Urban Mobility

The launch of SkyShuttle is not the end goal, rather, a foot in the door of future urban mobility, in particular vertical take-off and landing VTOL (pronounced as ‘vee-tol’) services, said Tekriwal.

It came as Uber Elevate, the division that is developing Uber Air, announced at the end of August that it had shortlisted India, Japan, France, Brazil, and Australia as the first international markets to launch aerial ride-sharing services by 2023. A week later on September 7, Uber’s head of aviation programs, Eric Allison, and head of product aviation, Nikhil Goel, met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, on the sidelines of India’s first-ever Global Mobility Summit called MOVE. They showcased Uber Air and highlighted the importance of a strong foundation for such a service, which uses small, electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically from Uber’s own sky ports built atop a high-rise buildings. Uber has partnerships with aircraft manufacturers such as Embraer, Bell, and Boeing to build those cars.

Said Tekriwal: “We launch SkyShuttle to look at this space. If you asked me two years back if it’d work, I would have said no. But now we look at how the technology for it is developing and how much value this will add.

“I don’t think the government will be averse to this as honestly, there is no more space left to build more roads and even if you look at building them underground, it would take a lot of time and resources.”

But it won’t happen in five years, she said, more like 15 years. “Just look at the regulatory stuff. You need air shuttles in cities like Mumbai and New Delhi as those are where the real traffic is. Unfortunately, most of these areas are No-Fly zones and, apart from this, they are largely occupied by residential hubs, offices, et cetera,” she added. “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 is these cities’ air traffic control systems are not geared up to have so many flight devices in the skies. What happens if you have 100 flying cars coming in?”

Regulations and infrastructure are two key areas to resolve, even as there are at least 19 companies including Airbus and Volocopter that are building different air taxis, she said.

“We’re going to start working closely with regulators on developing policies, on how to create the right infrastructure,” said Tekriwal.

Uber’s understandings have largely been on road. The challenges in air are dramatically different. Our strengths are we understand aviation, and India,” said Tekriwal.

She wasn’t scoffing on Uber.  “I hope a lot of companies will do this across the world for the product to become real.”

Luzi Matzig, a veteran Asian tour operator in Thailand who is a pilot and holds two hats as CEO of VIP Jets and chairman of Asian Trails Group, believes VTOL air shuttles will be a reality by 2025. Many companies, including Mercedes Benz, Aston Martin, Bell, Airbus, Amazon, etc, are developing test vehicles, so it is only a matter of time, he said.

“The main hurdle will be permits as, in general, governments are paranoid to open up airspace to new aerial traffic moving around in ways so far unheard of,” said Matzig.

“What needs to be done to make things easier at the start is to use fully automated electric VTOL air shuttles, but maybe with a ‘safety pilot’ sitting there just to make passengers feel more at ease with the automation.

“Electric vehicles produce practically no noise and No-Fly zones can be avoided by starting off with fixed routes at fixed schedules so that there is practically no need for air traffic control. If such air shuttles fly at maximum 1,500 feet, away from major airports, they propose no danger to scheduled air carriers flying at 30,000 to 40,000 feet,” said Matzig.

‘Every Great Journey Begins with One Small Humble Step’

SkyShuttle is a “pure learning” vehicle for JetSetGo to assess the infrastructure and regulatory requirements over the next three to four years, understand the needs of the government, create right value proposition for the customers, before graduating to the futuristic VTOLs.

“No one gets us Indians better than us Indians!,” its SkyShuttle presentation said.

Over a month since its launch, Tekriwal found that a lot of people were paranoid about the noise or scared of small planes and that it would take time for people to learn to pay a premium for the service. As a result, load factors are low (Skift understands below 50 per cent) but she declined to confirm saying, “We have not done exact data on it as it’s only been a few weeks.”

But 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 JetSetGo’s ideal of Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000, Tekriwal said, but added the company is willing to subsidize the venture for the learnings it would bring.

“For any new product as radical as this, it will take time to settle in, for people to get use to the product and understand the benefits. Once demand increases, we hope to yield up fares,” she said.

Already, 60 percent of customers to-date are new to jets and helicopters, while 30 percent are existing JetSetGo clients. The shuttles are predominantly (80 per cent) used by business travelers, she added.

Though loads are low currently, JetSetGo is still sticking to its target of launching one new route per month. “We’re beginning to map the air and road fronts, analyzing which services make sense and will change the way consumers travel,” Tekriwal said.

Not bad for a company that started with only the intention of aggregating private jets and creating an online marketplace matching planes to people. As business increased, there were loopholes, such as delays in planes turning up or outright cancellations. So Tekriwal turned to managing the aircrafts and their utilization for owners, earning a fee for the former service and a cut from the latter — not to mention gaining a complete control over service.

Having earned the trust of clients, the company went on to provide end-to-end services for them. For corporates, this could be mapping out an entire solution, for example, a single day factory visit from New Delhi to Kurnool by private jet and Kurnool to factor by helicopter.

Leisure-wise, luxury clients have also entrusted their expensive holidays to JetSetGo, which puts together the best hotels, experiences and private landings whether in India or other countries.

JetSetGo claimed it achieved 2,955 aircraft movements in the financial year ending March 31, 2018. The company’s investors include Puneet Dalmia, managing director of Dalmia Bharat, an industrialist in India dealing with cement, sugar, refractories, and power manufacturing, as well as India’s cricketer Yuvraj Singh, who founded the investment firm YouWeCan Ventures.

Photo Credit: Kanika Tekriwal, founder of JetSetGo, launches SkyShuttle for “pure learnings” of what to do in future