Airbus wants helicopters to take on the world's worst traffic

Key Points
  • Airbus is launching an on-demand helicopter booking service in Mexico City.
  • The service, called Voom, is already available in Sao Paulo.
  • Civilian helicopter demand weakened after a slump in commodity prices in 2014.
Traffic in Mexico City, Mexico.
Getty Images

The maker of the biggest passenger airplane is taking on a different kind of challenge: traffic jams.

European aerospace giant Airbus is debuting its on-demand helicopter booking platform, Voom, in Mexico City on Thursday in an effort to drum up demand for choppers among well-heeled urban commuters sick of spending hours in traffic.

Commuters in Mexico City spent an average of 58 hours in traffic last year, according to Inrix, which analyzes traffic data.

"This is a real problem," said Uma Subramanian, Voom's chief executive. The Mexico City service will launch with set routes including between Mexico City's main international airport and the Toluca International Airport, a distance of about 50 miles (80 kilometers). The service is aimed at some of the wealthiest commuters in the city. A trip from the upscale Polanco neighborhood to Montes Urales will cost 2,000 Mexican pesos, around US$107. The trip between the airports costs 5,500 pesos, or about $294.

The platform gives travelers the option to book a flight seven days in advance or up to an hour ahead of time. It is already available in Sao Paulo. The actual flying is supplied by outside helicopter operators.

Both cities have severe traffic problems, but neither as worse as Los Angeles, which has the worst in the world, according to Inrix.

Voom choose Mexico City because of its dedicated air traffic control and helicopter infrastructure, such as some 200 helipads, Subramanian said.

The company now wants to expand the service to other cities, and is analyzing some candidates in Asia.

Helicopter demand weakened following a slump in commodity prices from 2014, and orders are falling. Airbus said its order intake for its helicopter unit fell 5 percent last year from 2016, while demand for passenger jets is surging as record numbers of travelers take to the sky.

The idea is that Voom, which was born in Airbus' Silicon Valley incubator A3, will get a new generation zipping around cities in helicopters.

Airbus is developing a self-flying, electric, vertical-take off and landing, or VTOL, aircraft, called Vahana, which it said took its first test flight last month. Other companies, like Uber, are developing their own electric flying taxis.

If you could get people flying today, there will be loyal customers by the time electric VTOL comes, Subramanian said. "We create more demand."