Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson FINANCIAL TIMES
Helicopter services in rush for electric air taxi future
December 2, 2021
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  • Blade Air Mobility, the helicopter shuttle company backed by Cathie Wood and David Zaslav, has struck a $12m deal with a Canadian helicopter operator, betting that a wider network will give it a lead if electric air taxis become a reality.

    The New York-based group, whose major routes include airports and the Hamptons*, has acquired exclusive rights to the scheduled passenger business of Helijet, a Canadian company flying between Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo in British Columbia.

    The deal is part of a land grab for helipads, routes and customers in expectation that a new generation of quieter, lower-emissions, short-hop aircraft will need to use constrained existing infrastructure, at least initially, according to executives.

    Investors committed $4.3bn in the first eight months of 2021 to companies developing what are known as electric vertical take-off and landing (eVOTL) or electric vertical aircraft (EVAs), McKinsey has calculated. Public listings have given the electric aircraft companies Joby Aviation and Lilium valuations of $4.5bn and $1.9bn respectively.

    Regulators are still far from approving any electric aircraft for passenger services, however. Blade has contracted with four EVA developers including BETA Technologies and Embraer’s Eve for deliveries to begin in 2024, but has told investors that its business model assumes none will enter service until 2025.

    Deloitte has estimated that US “advanced air mobility” passenger revenues will reach $4bn in 2025 and $57bn by 2035, when it sees the wider market being worth $115bn.

    JPMorgan predicted in September that the total market could be worth “hundreds of billions” of dollars by the 2030s, but cautioned that only a handful of EVA companies were on track for regulatory certification by 2025 and several planned to compete with Blade.

    Blade plans to use Helijet to start a helicopter service between Seattle and Vancouver, two large tech industry hubs where it eventually expects a high willingness to try the nascent EVA technology.

    The lofty promises made for EVAs continue to attract tech executives and investors. Two of Wood’s funds, the Ark Autonomous Technology and Robotics exchange traded fund and Space Exploration and Innovation ETF, have disclosed a combined stake of at least 11 per cent in Blade in recent weeks.

    Zaslav, the Discovery Communications chief executive, owns 4.5 per cent of Blade and was among its earliest investors, alongside Eric Schmidt, the former Google chair, and IAC’s Barry Diller. Blade raised $365m by going public through a special purpose acquisition company, or Spac, deal in May, and had a market value of about $600m at Wednesday’s close.

    Rob Wiesenthal, Blade’s founder and chief executive, said his company provided a brand, an app and passenger terminals to the operators it contracts with but it did not own any aircraft. So “when EVA is ready, it’s just an aircraft swap for us; we will have already built, and will be operating, the rest of the ecosystem”, he said.

    Until local authorities were persuaded that EVAs could land in places helicopters are not currently allowed to, “anyone who wants to be in this business will likely have to use existing infrastructure”, Wiesenthal said.