During a visit to one of their helicopter operator partners in Dubai, I met Frédéric Aguettant and Mehdi Bouyahyaoui, respectively CEO and co-founder of Paris-based helicopter booking platform Helipass. Their company was recently selected to participate in Choose Paris Region’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) initiative to be one of the partners in developing UAM in Paris. This was a good opportunity to discuss their vision for Helipass and specifically how eVTOL aircraft will shape this landscape.
Alex Scerri: Frédéric and Mehdi, can you give some background on yourselves and the Helipass origin story?
Frédéric Aguettant: I have been in the helicopter industry in various roles for the past 25 years while Mehdi has over 15 years of experience in the field. You can say that I have the vision for the company while Mehdi is the dealmaker.
We started working on this project in 2014 after previously working together at a helicopter operator. From the outset we understood that there was a market for sightseeing helicopter flights where we estimated a potential market of six million passengers a year in the major cities around the world. Our plan is to grow 5 to 10 percent per year.
When we delved a bit deeper, we realized there was no workable digital booking solution. Every operator had a website where you could see some pictures and find a link to send an e-mail with your flight requirements. We wanted to change this and provide an integrated, one-stop, digital booking platform and that is how Helipass was born.
You can say there were three revolutions for booking platforms. The first one was where we could start to book airline tickets via the Internet. This was followed closely by hotels starting to offer their rooms directly online or through aggregators. The most recent step was when customers could also book their bespoke, local travel experience directly, and this is where we come in.
We started with a first contract with an operator in Paris and from there we branched out to the rest of France, then Europe and now the world. At present we have 120 helicopter operators and about 500 sightseeing experiences available on our system.
Although a good part of our work is B2C, there is also an element of B2B where we work with distributors like Expedia, Viator, etc. Some of these did not have much prior experience of helicopter flight packages, so we had a good exchange of expertise.
After the sightseeing sector, we started exploring the transfer business beginning with Nice to Monaco, then New York (JFK to Manhattan), Cape Town and now we are trying to start in Paris as well.
The small operator business model had not changed much in half a century and we felt we could disrupt it. We approached Airbnb Experiences who were very interested in our product. However, integrating flights into their booking engine was technically challenging as it was so different from their mainstream experience offering.
Together with Mehdi, we then thought about Uber, whose ride booking system was more akin to what we were after. It took us six months to get a meeting with them and finally, at the start of 2015 we got our meeting and they were very enthusiastic, and we got them on board.
Mehdi made the deal with Uber to start a helicopter service between Nice and Cannes during the annual film festival in 2015. We approached a local helicopter operator who initially only wanted to sell a whole helicopter charter as usual, but we wanted to do it on per-seat basis, so we took that risk onto ourselves.
Mehdi Bouyahyaoui: We started handling the bookings from the Uber application. I was on site, with 20 mobile phones on a table, 10 for the trips from Nice to Cannes and 10 for the return sector. The previous year that operator had sold 80 seats over the six main days of the festival. By the end of the 2015 festival, we had flown more than 400 people!
Frédéric Aguettant: That was the start of Uber Copter and we wanted to keep up the momentum. I was in touch with Travis Kalanick, but when we were directed to the person in charge of the helicopter division, we sensed that their target had been more for publicity to open up Uber in general in the south of France, where there was a lot of pushback from the local ground taxi companies. In all fairness, that exercise worked well for Uber as all the major news organizations like CNN, etc., came to see and report on the operation.
Although we have gone our separate ways, it was a good experience for us, too. We are proud to have been part of this disruption and resurgence of the flying taxi concept. Just a year later, in October 2016, the Uber Elevate whitepaper was published, which really kicked off the eVTOL revolution.
Alex Scerri: Where are you with the app development?
Frédéric Aguettant: Our main aim is to have fast and responsive website and that is where we are now. However, we have seen that in the past six months, 80 percent of our traffic is from smartphones. Rather than a native mobile app, we prefer the web app solution. For users booking travel experiences and sightseeing, we see that the website solution works well as users mostly plan their trip in advance at home. For the transfer trip model, the mobility aspect of a web app would be useful although frequent travellers could also use it to book experiences on the fly.
Alex Scerri: How would I go about booking a trip?
Frédéric Aguettant: There are two scenarios. If we already have the product you want in our catalogue e.g., a sightseeing trip of Paris, all you have to do is select a date and time, pay online and your booking is done.
If your requested itinerary is not in the system, you simply enter the departure and arrival points. At the moment we have about 40,000 heliports and airports in the system and increasing all the time. You will be given an option of helicopters, with associated flight times and prices, and you select one depending on your needs. The system will generate an instant quotation automatically. You can finalize the booking by calling us and specify any other requests. We can organize tarmac transfers and of course ground transportation at both ends of the trip.
Alex Scerri: So that was for on-demand transfers. Are you looking at introducing more scheduled transfers in the system?
Frédéric Aguettant: The on-demand trips are much more resource intensive. Scheduled flights are better suited for a booking solution and in many ways, better for the user as well as they can easily see all the products available to them. I am very much in favor of scheduled services, but many helicopter operators are reluctant to offer this.
I see this like running a shop. If your shelves are empty, the customers will have nothing to browse and buy, but if you have a steady supply of interesting, value offer products, that will generate business. Naturally, you have to be dynamic and readapt schedules with booking pattern data.
Alex Scerri: You were recently selected as part of the Choose Paris Initiative for Urban Air Mobility. What does this change for you?
Frédéric Aguettant: We are of course happy to be part of this. At the moment there is a lot of focus on the eVTOL aircraft themselves, the infrastructure, certification, UTM, etc. All of this is very important, but we must remember that we are doing this for the customers, and that is where Helipass will come in, as the interface between the user and the urban mobility network. Our current experience will transfer well even if the aircraft will be different.
Alex Scerri: How will eVTOL aircraft change your business, and do you think they will replace helicopters?
Frédéric Aguettant: Yes, I think they will slowly replace helicopters. For sightseeing trips which are normally short and repetitive we could start using eVTOLs tomorrow! These types of trips are perfectly suited even for the eVTOL prototypes flying today. A higher degree of automation will also be beneficial as these flights tend to be monotonous and repetitive for pilots. For other missions, we will have to see as eVTOL increase range and payload.
Mehdi Bouyahyaoui: From our part, we must be sure that our platform continues to be easy to use to facilitate the whole process and enhance the users’ eVTOL and UAM experience. It must immediately feel that it is something much more accessible than today’s helicopters.
Alex Scerri: In a December 2020 interview on Mobility.TV, the panel discussing UAM initiatives in Paris mentioned a possible route being between Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport and Disneyland Paris during the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Are there any other details you can share?
Frédéric Aguettant: Yes, the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a magnificent showcase to present this product and show the world a working and viable service. At the moment we are not sure if the flights will be available to the general public or specific demonstration flights with selected crew. It will depend on where we are with regulations at that time.
A commercially interesting route will be from Paris Heliport to Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport. We can also have flights from the airport to Disneyland Paris or to La Défense business district as there is a demand for that.
Of course, we will need infrastructure for that. We already have the required facilities in Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport and also at Paris-Le Bourget. It would be better to use Paris-Charles de Gaulle as it is the main airport rather than a business aviation destination such as Paris-Le Bourget. Disneyland Paris is also a good choice as it is something that appeals to a wide range of customers and we also have our infrastructure ready over there. I think it would be great if we manage to do this and show how many points can be reached with quick, 10- to 12-minute flights.
One thing we will have to work on are the handling charges. The landing fees alone at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport are in the region of €1000 plus tax. Groupe ADP which manages airports in Paris is one of the main partners in the UAM initiative and we are already in discussions with them on the subject of fees. At the same time streamlining the ground handling processes will ensure the smoothest transfer experience possible.
Alex Scerri: Is there a rule that when you depart Issy-les-Moulineaux Heliport in Paris, you have to do a one-hour stop at another airport or heliport before returning, e.g. during a sightseeing flight?
Frédéric Aguettant: Unfortunately, yes. In fact, it applies to any departure point close to the city. It was a misguided measure introduced to try to artificially implement a cap on the number of movements. However, all it does is create noise at an airport or heliport where we would otherwise not need to land and take off, adds cycles on the helicopters and makes us burn fuel unnecessarily. Obviously, there is an issue with acceptance, and this will be one of the main challenges for eVTOL. There are technical solutions, some of which are already being implemented in helicopters and must continue to be improved for eVTOLs.
Alex Scerri: The land lease for Paris Heliport will coincidentally come to an end in 2024 unless it is renewed. What are your thoughts, now that we are so close to having quieter, cleaner aircraft that could be more widely accessible?
Frédéric Aguettant: Issy-les-Moulineaux Heliport in Paris was one of the first airfields in the world with a 100 year-plus history. The site was originally much bigger and now it is just a fraction of that. It is not only a public transport heliport, but it is widely used by Civil Security, the Ministry of Defence that is our neighbor, and is the medevac landing area for Georges Pompidou Hospital and other medical facilities in the neighborhood. There are at least 80 people directly employed at the airport and another 1,000 to 2,000 jobs depend on the heliport. Incidentally, another archaic rule is that we cannot carry out maintenance at the heliport which adds movements each time a helicopter has to be flown out for that reason.
Our work together with Groupe ADP is to develop this heliport to democratize the services to be more widely available, even to the people who are our neighbors. This is something that the lower operating costs of eVTOL should help us to achieve. But we need some time.
Alex Scerri: Have you studied any other sites around Paris?
Frédéric Aguettant: We are looking at about 12 sites around Paris that could be potential vertiport locations and now we are specifically talking about eVTOL operations. It doesn’t mean we have secured the land, but we have identified sites where there is lower population density, and where we would cause the least disturbance to the community while being strategic locations from the transport network perspective.
Alex Scerri: Carlos Moreno, scientific director of the “Entrepreneurship, Territory, Innovation” Chair at Paris’ Sorbonne University, is advocating the “15-minute City,” where all the residents’ essential needs are within 15 minutes by bike or on foot. Would it be unfeasible to stretch this concept to UAM?
Frédéric Aguettant: This is the way. For example, bicycles are becoming very popular in Paris even if it is not always a sunny city! The infrastructure has been developed for them and people have adopted them. Slowly, Parisians are moving away from car ownership and having a transport mode like UAM would open their range to still be able to occasionally avail of commercial and entertainment venues outside the immediate confines of the city. At the same time, they will use an environmentally friendly mode of transportation as an additional option to the ground-based network.
Alex Scerri: Have you looked at other vertiport sites, closer to the city center than the current heliport?
Frédéric Aguettant: This will be a huge challenge but this is a disruptive business so we will explore all the possibilities. We need to ask the administrators what their concerns are and address them point by point. The right way is to look for solutions, not focus on the problems. If the issues relate to security, noise, acceptance… we can work on all of those, but if Paris wants to remain as a world leading capital city with air connectivity to downtown, then the decision-makers should be at least open to dialogue.
Alex Scerri: How do you quantify the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on your business in 2020?
Frédéric Aguettant: We did see a small dip in the numbers like you would expect. In a way we are lucky that we are a growing business as we are still adding products and routes wherever the market retains some momentum, and that is why we are here in Dubai. That helped us to offset some of the downward trend.
For example, in France, just after the first lockdown and before the summer holidays, a lot of people were wary of going to the traditional coastal resorts and preferred going to the mountains. As soon as we saw that we changed our focus from the sea to the alpine locations where we added flights over Mont Blanc, Courchevel, Annecy, etc. which were a big success. You have to be agile.
Alex Scerri: And finally, any message to the eVTOL community?
Frédéric Aguettant: We have a very optimistic outlook for eVTOL. For ourselves, we are based in a historic, beautiful, European capital which in turn creates some specific challenges and limitations. However, if we can succeed in Paris, we can be a success anywhere and the same goes for all the participants of this new, exciting revolution in urban air transportation.