Helicopter Service Blade Pivots to Uber-Like SUVs During NYC Shutdown
(Bloomberg) -- With the vast majority of flights out of New York currently canceled and citizens sheltering in place, it would seem there isn’t much use for a helicopter service that’s made a name for itself by transporting the city’s elite above Manhattan gridlock.
But Blade Urban Air Mobility Inc. quickly adapted to the new way of the world—both to aid in the fight against coronavirus and keep its workers employed. The company began its Essential Ground Connect Service program in the first week of March, leveraging its mobility and logistics expertise to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft in navigating how to move people during a pandemic.
It’s a stark change for a company that previously focused on reducing the cost of helicopter rides—$195 for a hop to a New York airport—and speaks to the pivots needed in the time of Covid-19, which has currently killed almost 5,500 people in New York state and has a third of humanity on lockdown.
As part of the new program, Blade refitted its SUVs—previously used to transport customers from the helicopter landing pad to the airport—with plexiglass barriers separating the driver from the passengers; all climate controls have been adjusted to utilize only outside air, rather than recirculating interior atmosphere. Each vehicle is thoroughly sanitized between trips, using electrostatic decontamination sprayers, while such touch points as door handles, seatbelts, and buckles are hand-cleaned by technicians.
Before each trip, drivers must undergo a temperature check, a short interview, and visual observation by a “MediMobility” team member (Blade’s organ transport division) for any health issues. Drivers also wear protective gloves for opening doors and handling cargo, or riders can choose to do all this themselves.
Rob Wiesenthal, chief executive officer of Blade, estimates that the majority of passengers in these trips, about 75%, are health professionals serving the NYU Langone Health System and the Mount Sinai Health System, going from their homes to the hospitals where they work. Blade has partnered with the hospitals to move individuals at no charge, as well as helping transport such essential equipment as ventilators among locations.
“We had two choices, given that folks are staying at home and there aren’t a lot of commercial flights: We could pause, or we could find a way we could help,” says Will Heyburn, Blade’s head of corporate development. “We chose that second option.”
Regular citizens can use Blade’s ground services within Manhattan at a cost of $65 an hour for a minimum of one hour; net proceeds go to help offset the costs of the health-care worker trips. Riders can make multiple stops, including wait times, and trips can include multiple passenger pickups or dropoffs.
The new program is also a way for Blade to avoid laying off all of its 45 workers. Although 15 have been furloughed, the rest remain employed as drivers or logistics coordinators. About 20 cars are in service right now, and Wiesenthal says Blade may increase that to 50, based on demand: Its passenger numbers are increasing about 15% each day.
He adds that the company will be able to weather the coronavirus because it is well-capitalized, with cash on hand, and is able to operate some helicopter services in areas that lack shelter-in-place orders.
“When things do return to normal, our top employees will still be engaged,” says Wiesenthal. “When it comes to the consumers, they’ll remember our contribution during these times. You build a tremendous amount of brand loyalty and integrity.”
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