The much-hyped first air taxi service in the country, which was launched with fanfare by the Haryana government earlier this year was discontinued in August, barely seven months after becoming operational. This has come as a shock as expectations were that this new segment of urban commute will emerge as the next focus in the aviation sector after the government notified drone norms last month.
An air taxi, which usually has a capacity of four people, including the pilot, is a passenger service which typically makes short flights to provide people with on-demand air services to locations within a particular region. Specialised aircraft such as very light jets may be part of such services, offering seats to a small number of passengers.
However, the concept of air taxis is not alien. Ehang has already begun with the concept in China and is exploring deployments in Dubai; other cities in Europe have done intercity trials of a car that can be doubly used as an air mobility vehicle.
“It’s not about if air taxis are possible, it’s just about when will the air taxis come in India,” said Smit Shah, director of Drone Federation of India (DFI).
Civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia had recently announced that air taxis are being researched globally and many start-ups are coming up in this segment. The Ministry of civil Aviation (MoCA) published its new liberalised drone policy on August 26, hinting the launch of air taxis in the near future.
However, the grounding of first-ever air taxi service in the country on account of “regulatory” challenges puts a question mark on the sustainability of such a business in the long-term. It is expected that India’s new drone policy will only help these companies take their products to the next level which could pave the way for unmanned aerial vehicle transportation.
Operated by the Chandigarh-based ‘Air Taxi’, air commuting services were launched on three routes from Chandigarh – Hisar-Chandigarh- Hisar, Hisar-Dehradun- Hisar and Hisar-Dharamshala-Hisar.
“Most passengers were women, college students or elderlies, who would find it difficult to commute via road, especially to and from Chandigarh. However, despite a good response, the company shut its operations on August 1 owing to regulatory challenges,” Capt. Varun Suhag, director of Air Taxi said.
“We had a project of deploying 30 of these air taxis on different routes which would be seamless connectivity to small towns. The issue is that regulations in India are half written, visual flight rules (VFR) need a minimum of 5km visibility, in instrument flight rule (IFR) one can operate in zero visibility, but IFR can be operated where airports have instruments. Small airports don’t have the facilities hence pilots operating to such airports have to fly only on VFR and visibility can drop below 5km at any point, especially in North India. The US and Europe have special VFR flights, in which they are permitted in 1500m (1.5km) and above visibility, which enables the pilot to call for special VFR. This provision is not written in the Indian regulation, making it difficult for flights to operate on a regular basis,” Capt. Suhag added.
He said that the concept of air taxis that is now being spoken about is not different as the distances between two places will be smaller, security and visibility requirements. There is a lot of talking and less of action.
However, industry experts believe that air taxis will be the future of India.
“Air taxis will be a reality – not just in India but globally – in this decade,” said Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer, CAPA advisory.
“As per the market analysis, affordability is still something that the stakeholders need to work upon along with the government agencies, as the operation of air taxis is a costly affair considering the huge investment required for manufacturing, certification, operation, vertiports/ charging/ refueling station and associated costs,” said an expert who did not wished to be named.
Aerial vehicles can be used as air metros, business Jets, air ambulance, emergency cargo/ stores delivery apart from the primary use of air taxis.
“VTOL has been working on two configurations for vertical take-off and landing air taxis. The first configuration’s prototype is ready and the mock is under manufacturing, the second configuration’s design is under review, so we anticipate by 2025 one of our configurations will be positively launched,” said Kalyan Chowdhury, founder and managing director of VTOL, Aviation India Pvt.Ltd. under industry academia collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur.
However, being a UAV manufacturer and also an R&D organization, Chowdhury said that he has faced several challenges pertaining to the regulatory framework, certifications, cybersecurity, air traffic management, operational infrastructure and commercial implications while developing the VTOL Air Taxi product. “So once the challenges are addressed by the regulatory authorities, stakeholders, government agencies, air taxis will soon be a reality in India,” Chowdhury added.
Another air taxi company eplane, which was created at IIT Madras and has been around since 2019, said it is looking to launch its first air taxi service by early next year. “The idea is to build flying taxis to move people within cities. We’ve raised one round of funding, close to USD one million last year. We’re looking at early 2022, February-March, when we run the first flight,” Pranjal Mehta, chief executive officer (CEO) of eplane said.
According to a global survey conducted by McKinsey this year, traveller’s interest in using passenger advanced air mobility (AAM) [air taxis] was highest in India and Brazil.
Around 47% of Indian respondents said they would definitely consider using an AAM vehicle in the future, depending on use case. 41% of Indian respondents wanted shorter travel times. The survey revealed that four Indian cities were among the world’s ten most congested in 2019, prior to the pandemic. 36% of Indian consumers said they would definitely pay five times the price of their current transport mode to hop on an AAM vehicle for a trip to or from an airport. About 76% of Indian respondents said they would be willing to pay extra to have items delivered within one to two hours by cargo drone, the survey revealed.
“In India, an hour trip of 10km becomes 10 minutes with an air taxi. People are willing to pay up to five times more for this service,” Mehta added.
Talking about their applications, Shah said that air taxis will initially be useful where time is of essence (when VIP movements or high earning people want to travel from urban centres to airports would be one area, or do critical logistics where time will be important and not cost).