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Affordable helicopter taxis to beat Jakarta gridlocks

Grab, Uber among those showing interest in aerial transport solutions

Singapore-based ride hailing app, Grab, says it will soon introduce a helicopter taxi service for traffic-congested Jakarta. (Photo by Grab Indonesia)

JAKARTA -- Whitesky Aviation sees a business opportunity in Jakarta's worsening traffic congestion, and the charter flight company is offering a heavily subsidized holiday promotion rate of only 14 million rupiah ($1,051) for a 40-minute helicopter ride from the Indonesian capital to Bandung -- less than half price.

"It's selling well -- we are fully booked for some days ahead of Idul Fitri," Chief Executive Denon Prawiraatmadja told the Nikkei Asian Review last week.

Travel during the annual Islamic holiday is a nightmarish experience for millions who return home to be with their families, including those headed for Bandung in West Java, Indonesia's third largest city. The 120km journey can take up to four hours at normal times, but this rises to 8-12 hours during the peak Idul Fitri exodus.

A similar promotion last year attracted 600 flight inquiries but Whitesky was only able to offer 30 flights with its two helicopters. The transportation ministry restricts helicopters to daylight operations -- 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Nevertheless, the marketing effort has helped promote Helicity, as the service is called, as a transport option across locations in Jakarta and to nearby cities, with about 20 flights per month.

"After going retail and cutting the price, our market segment has automatically expanded," Prawiraatmadja said. "Our customers are more varied -- no longer just VVIPs."

Whitesky's original market was corporate -- mainly mining and plantation companies. Contracts from these sectors fell in 2015 and 2016 along with declining commodity prices, compelling Whitesky to look for new business sources.

Last year, the company signed contracts to purchase 40 new helicopters, including 30 Bell 505 Jet Rangers from the U.S. These smaller machines carry four passengers at costs that make services available to a wider range of customers.

"Previously you could only rent a helicopter for a two-hour ride that costs more than 60 million rupiah, so you can imagine only businessmen could afford it," said Prawiraatmadja, who is also head of the non-scheduled flight division of the Indonesia National Air Carriers Association.

With the new, lighter aircraft, a Jakarta-Bandung ride will cost as little as 12 million rupiah -- about a third of the hourly operating cost for the six-passenger, twin-engine helicopter Whitesky currently deploys for Helicity.

A three-hour train journey executive class to Bandung costs only 140,000 rupiah, but the limited seats are often unavailable, particularly at weekends. A minibus shuttle costs around 100,000 rupiah, but worsening traffic on toll roads makes the journey arduous. There are no connecting flights. Despite all this, Bandung with its elevated setting is a popular weekend getaway for many in the capital.

At least four new aircraft are expected in October. "That will be when we launch Helicity at a rate reflecting the actual operating cost," said Prawiraatmadja. Whitesky is negotiating for six more by the end of the year, with all 40 new choppers due to be delivered by 2021. Apart from its existing pair of helicopters, Whitesky has four propeller aircraft that still cater only to corporate and VIP clients.

Whitesky will start building a 287 billion rupiah heliport on the edge of Soekarno-Hatta Airport, the main national gateway on the outskirts of Jakarta. It has an agreement with Garuda Indonesia to ferrypremium passengers to any one of 224 landing points around Jakarta and Bandung.

Although Whitesky has been the most active so far, others are eyeing local aerial transport possibilities. Uber, the U.S.-based ride hailing app, teamed up with PremiAir for helicopter services in Jakarta and Bali in 2015 and 2016 under the UberChopper banner. The service is no longer being offered but may not be completely off the table. In April, an Uber executive revealed plans for flying taxis in Texas and Dubai by 2020. 

Grab, Southeast Asia's leading homegrown ride-hailing app, and local partner Lippo Group this month tested GrabHeli by offering free rides to select customers. The Singapore-based company said GrabHeli might offer a solution "for specific target customers in the future". In a June 10 statement, Grab said the service will be offered at an "affordable price".

"We are more than excited to soon introduce our latest solution beyond land transport services," said Ridzki Kramadibrata, Grab Indonesia's managing director.

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