Chicago’s metropolitan sprawl got a taste of what an urban air mobility (UAM) future could look like during a two-week simulation exercise in which helicopters were used in place of eVTOL aircraft. According to Eve, the Brazil-based company working to bring a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft into commercial service in 2026, the flights carrying fare-paying passengers were used to gather real-world experience that will lead to a concept of operations for the U.S. city.
The manufacturer conducted its latest simulation exercise with partner Blade Air Mobility, which on Tuesday reported that its FlyBlade India operation has placed a "non-binding order" for up to 200 of the Eve aircraft. FlyBlade India, which is jointly owned by New Dehli-based investor Hunch Ventures, says the eVTOL vehicles will provide capacity for up to 50,000 flight hours.
As part of a pilot project, Blade intends to start offering helicopter flights in an undisclosed major Indian city. The ride-hailing platform has also committed to adding rival eVTOL aircraft being developed by Beta Technologies and Wisk Aero to fleets owned by its partner operators.
“The point of the simulation is to understand and map the [urban air mobility] journey and to consider points such as how [the flights] will be integrated with other modes [of transportation] and the services that could be provided,” Eve CEO Andre Stein told FutureFlight. “We can theorize as much as we want but once we see real operations we can understand what the passenger experience will be like and work on details such as how the vehicles will be charged.”
According to Eve, Chicagoland's UAM market could consist of up to around 150 routes with 240 eVTOL aircraft initially operating to and from around 20 vertiports. “It’s not just a matter of replacing helicopters,” Stein said, explaining that the operating economics of the new aircraft will shape the market in new ways.
From September 14 through 23, Eve conducted commercial flights with helicopters provided by Blade Air Mobility. The flights connected the downtown Vertiport Chicago with pop-up “helistops” in the northern suburb of Schaumberg and the southern suburb of Tinley Park. Some of the movements involved overflying Chicago’s busy Midway Airport, which has given the companies an opportunity to operate in congested commercial airspace.
Vertiport Chicago is a well-developed helicopter base with substantial existing infrastructure. By contrast, the temporary facilities in Schaumberg and Tinley Park consist, respectively, of just a shipping container for a temporary office and a car parked next to the landing site.
The partners have been using the ticket sales process, employing platforms including the Blade app and social media, to engage with local residents and introduce them to UAM services. Some of the passengers were taking their first helicopter flights, including one couple who had been just passing through the city and took the opportunity to visit family locally.
As with an earlier simulation exercise in the Brazilian mega-city of Rio de Janeiro, Eve and its partners, which also include United Airlines, have been testing every aspect of the simulated operations, including exactly how passengers board aircraft. Energy group Acciona is looking at factors such as whether the eVTOL aircraft would be best served using a long cable for recharging or mobile charging units.
“We have had an army of people observing and testing the operations,” said Stein. “For instance, we’ve been doing security screening in case this ends up being a requirement. We’re also looking at how the eVTOLs could be integrated with delivery drone operations and how to deal with surprises such as intoxicated passengers or those who don’t behave well. Humans are so surprising.”
One of the passengers who liked the service was Raja Rallapalli, who runs a wholesale food and beverage distribution business. He booked a flight with Blade to take him from Vertiport Chicago to Schaumberg, which is close to his home, and told FutureFlight that it made it possible for him to meet time-sensitive work and family commitments.
After holding early morning meetings with clients at Chicago’s downtown produce market, he was able to be home by 9 a.m. to take elderly relatives to the airport. What would have been at least a two-hour drive took 20 minutes, and he was able to join his family in a car waiting right next to the Schaumberg helistop.
The flight cost Rallapalli $150, which he said was $65 more than a car service for the same journey. “The two hours I saved I could use to do more business and generate revenues that exceeded the extra $65 I paid,” he commented. “Thanks to Eve’s ride, I was able to balance my work and personal commitments on time. For me, air mobility is not just a luxury or style statement; it is for convenience in terms of saving time and generating more business while balancing time with family.”
Rallapalli heard about the simulation exercise because he is already registered with Blade Urban Air Mobility. He has previously used its helicopter flights on business trips to the New York and New Jersey areas. He added that part of his interest in eVTOL aircraft is the hope that his business travel will generate lower carbon-dioxide emissions.