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Air taxi service from downtown Chicago to O’Hare could launch by summer

When the pandemic subsides and people resume flying en masse again, there may be a new way to get from downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport — by helicopter.

Blade, a New York-based “urban air mobility” provider, announced Thursday it has partnered with the downtown heliport Vertiport Chicago to launch air taxi service as early as this summer.

Longer term, the company hopes to transform to an emerging technology — electric-powered helicopters — to expand its service in Chicago and other markets.

In Chicago, passengers will soon be able to book regular helicopter flights from the 6-year-old facility in the Illinois Medical District to O’Hare and other destinations for the cost of an Uber Black — getting there in less than half the time, Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal said.

“We fly people by the seat to various destinations, including suburbs on a commuter basis or to airports, and turn a two-hour drive into a five-minute flight,” Wiesenthal said.

Other possible destinations include Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The company, which doesn’t own helicopters, has partnered with an operator to station aircraft for passenger use at Vertiport. The helicopters seat six, with passengers booked for each flight by Blade. Prices for Chicago have not been set, but run about $95 per person for airport flights in New York, Wiesenthal said.

Blade will be the exclusive provider of passenger helicopter service by the seat at the facility, which will be rebranded Vertiport Chicago Powered by Blade. The company will also have the right to build a branded terminal at the 10-acre heliport on South Wood Street.

Founded in 2014, Blade has established helicopter air taxi service in New York, Miami and India. In 2019, Blade began offering regular helicopter flights to all three major airports serving New York City, operating at a rate of 20,000 passengers annually by the end of the year, Wiesenthal said.

Blade, which is planning to go public this year through a special purpose acquisition company, generated $33 million in revenue during 2019, Wiesenthal said. Traffic counts and revenue were down in 2020 because of the pandemic, but in an investor presentation, the company projects $875 million in annual revenue by 2026.

A big part of its growth strategy is the transition to electric vertical aircraft in the next few years. The electric helicopters, which are in development at several manufacturers, are quieter and faster than traditional helicopters, opening the door to a proliferation of heliports throughout the city, Wiesenthal said.

“As people see that they’re safe and quiet and have zero emissions, we believe that cities like Chicago will allow us to build more infrastructure,” he said.

The electric vertical aircraft are expected to take off in the U.S. by 2024, pending approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Blade is not the only company betting on a big future for the new technology. Chicago-based United Airlines said Feb. 10 it will buy up to 200 small electric air taxis to help customers get to the airport in major urban markets.

Daniel Mojica, executive director of Vertiport Chicago, did not respond to a request for comment, but said in a joint news release with Blade that the infrastructure build out for next-generation electric vertical aircraft had already begun.

“Our alliance with Blade will only serve to accelerate our ability to help create the network of landing zones our city needs to be competitive in the future,” Mojica said.

This article originally appeared on the Chicago Tribune

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