Making helicopters accessible for everyone worldwide
Interview by François Blanc
Copyright : Book My Helo
Featured at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, then at Heli-Expo 2017, new company Book My Helo has set itself a lofty goal: to make helicopter passenger transportation an innovative and affordable tool for mobility for all. The company’s founder and CEO, Vincent Kieffer, explains the company’s vision.
Helicopter Industry: When was the Book My Helo online reservation platform created, and by whom ?
Vincent Kieffer : In legal terms, the company was founded during the fourth quarter of 2016. We’re a French company based in Marseille, the fruit of 25 years of experience in the professional helicopter world. I also lived in Brazil for 16 years. About two years ago, an investor looking to visit factory sites there, who knew I had connections in the helicopter business, asked me to help him find a few flights so he could see several sites in one day. I helped him out. Afterwards, he told me how pleased he was with the service and asked me to do the same sort of thing for him again, but this time in the United States! Then it was on to Europe. Our meeting is what sparked the idea for Book My Helo.
How long did it take you to fully conceive of and develop your reservation platform?
In some ways I guess you could say it took me 25 years! I’m referring to all my years of experience with rotorcraft, of course. More literally, like I said, the anecdote I shared about my traveling investor, which really started everything, took place two years ago. After that, the plan was to found the company in Brazil and start business just before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. However, the global security climate prevented us from following through: the terrorist threat weighed heavy worldwide, including in Brazil, and the few flight windows we had been able to secure were canceled. When I came home to France, I found a thriving start-up ecosystem near Marseille. I decided to launch Book My Helo at a Marseille airbase—in theory, the location of the global concept’s headquarters is unimportant.
Beyond this anecdote, what observations led you to found the company?
This experience made me realize that there was no service designed to fulfill requests like this one, and that there was potential there. That’s where the idea of a worldwide exchange that would provide travelers (citizens of the world on business or pleasure trips) with access to helicopters. There are quite a few helicopter aficionados out there who know how great these aircraft are, but it would be wonderful for everyone to be able to enjoy them. The idea for Book My Helo is the product of my dream of democratizing helicopter use, while bringing technological innovation to the sector, which, despite what you might think, isn’t currently taking advantage of what’s out there. Let me explain: people think of helicopters themselves as a concentrate of applied technology, but technological innovation is not necessarily incorporated into the way they’re operated or the services they provide. In other words, helicopters are only seen as an innovative mobility solution by the elite, who get a lot of use out of them. But 99% of people don’t see them that way; they’re totally inaccessible. There’s a big obstacle keeping the rest of the world from enjoying helicopters. I aim to democratize helicopter use and ensure customer satisfaction. The additional flight hours will also contribute to a small upturn for operators, which is why we work with a shared platform.
How did you develop your network of operators? What criteria did you use to select them?
As I’ve implied, I’ve held many different jobs in the helicopter industry and have worked with clients all over the world. I’m confident in my knowledge of the sector on a global scale. I’ve attended Heli-Expo annually for almost a quarter of a century—I’ve hardly ever missed it. From year to year, it’s almost always the same players. And, of course, the 80-20 rule applies in this sector too: there are parts of the world where there’s a lot of helicopter activity, and other parts where they are rare. The rest is a question of methods, financial acumen, and observation of similar fields, such as corporate tourism and event planning—it’s about opening your eyes and learning from all these other sectors. Even then, the operators are best equipped to estimate the number of empty seats on their helicopters. That said, they reason in terms of flights, not necessarily passengers: they sell an hour of flight time, whether the helicopter is full or empty and whether the trip takes 10 minutes or more. But the stakes are clearly there: if they have 10 passengers for a one-hour flight, that represents 10 potential occasions to fly again and use a helicopter more frequently. It’s important to understand that there are three kinds of operators, to simplify the context. First, there are those who are looking for any and all solutions to improve profitability. I don’t have to do much for them to understand the concept behind Book My Helo (they know what Uber is and what “uberization” means!). And it just so happens that the biggest operators fall into this category. In Las Vegas, helicopter transportation companies like Maverick and Papillon are a few examples. Next, you have those who aren’t quite sure about this kind of scheme, but who fall quickly into step as soon as they realize it works. Lastly, there are the companies that work in niche markets, fly a lot and don’t need help from anyone. They’re happy with the way business is going. The first two categories just need to get used to our system. The third will either adopt it later or go a different direction… That said, there’s no need to go explain Book My Helo to every operator on the planet! We’ve reached out to the most active among them, in the regions with the highest potential. As for Asia, we’re all watching intently to see what happens there, particularly China. In Africa, helicopter use is on an upward trend, and there’s already an interesting amount of business. Once again, the idea is to bring them a new clientele, wherever they are, and to foster the development of helicopter transportation. And the more passengers there are, the more affordable seats will be, making helicopters more and more accessible. It goes without saying that our service is not private plane sharing. Book My Helo only works with professional air transportation companies registered in their countries and certified by the relevant authorities for commercial passenger transportation— travelers new to the world of helicopters can rest assured. Lastly, Book My Helo has a signed contract with the operator.
In a recent press release, you mention helicopter transfers to and from major airports. Is that the main suggested use, or just one of many?
It’s not the only possible service, of course. But it is the most innovative and promising in terms of passenger volume. We’re facing serious urban mobility problems
in all of the world’s major cities—helicopters are an instantaneous solution, even if they aren’t a mode of mass transportation. And at airports, all of the ground
infrastructure is already there! It’s true that there are cities without much helicopter service, like Paris for example. But worldwide there are a lot of fully equipped
cities, and even shuttle services between airports and cities. To travel the 30 kilometers (on average) that separate an airport from the associated downtown area,
passengers have to deal with traffic, often spending two additional hours to reach their final destination! Today’s luxury is making the best possible use of time. In
sum, the air passenger market is our first target. Other services could include tourist visits, quick links to sporting events, trade shows, conventions, tourist sites,
vacation homes, etc.
What kind of availability do you expect on average?
Our role is to make our tool available so that the cost of the flight can be shared amongst the greatest possible number of people—provided the initial enquirer has authorized it, of course. It’s up to the enquirer to accept or refuse the price offered. Availability is thus determined by the passengers themselves! We will always put forth a solution, but it’s up to the traveler to say yes or no depending on the service on offer and its price. Our role is also to not recommend a twin-engine helicopter when it’s not needed, or an eight-seater if a piston engine three-seater is better suited and more affordable. In short, our job is to offer an appropriate service.
What restrictions will you impose (destinations, flight times and conditions, etc.)?
Book My Helo will obviously never go against the rules in force, whether it’s those put in place by civil aviation authorities or those that regulate helicopter use by type of configuration. Temporary no fly zones, dangerous weather conditions and the twin-engine requirement to fly over certain areas are all parameters we take into consideration. Of course, our solutions are dependent on a number of variables—the same ones accounted for in the terms and conditions of all air transportation companies. In this context, Book My Helo is a bit like a travel agent who can’t guarantee that there won’t be a snowstorm at the landing point on the day planned for the flight. All we can do is find solutions to problems, including reimbursements should the need arise.
Are the prices presented to consumers negotiated or set directly by the operator?
Book My Helo sells the service to the client. The idea is to offer a solution that speaks the same language in every country on the planet, with any operator. We are the marketplace that gathers the offers, checks to see if they fit and, finally, offers a seat. But we can only offer what operators are offering. The starting price is set by the operator, per flight hour. We come up with a price per seat: we’re like a converter.
How are you promoting Book My Helo?
We’re targeting, among others, trade shows, primarily in the world of technology, start-up and innovation. We are naturally attracted to these fast-moving sectors. Early this year we were one of 500 start-ups selected by the Consumer Electronics Show organizing committee. Then there are the trade shows in the helicopter sector: Heli-Expo in the United States and Helitech in Europe. We’re going to continue down this road. We also have a third outlet, which is the tourism industry and travel more broadly, including business travel. We have participated in trade shows in this sector in France, Spain and the UK, as a player who brings together end-users, helicopter transportation professionals and technology, i.e. the reservation platform. Book My Helo is at the beginning of its roll-out, but we hope to be in business for quite some time given the recent nature of the market and its long-term potential.