Civil Helicopters Interviews

Ascent:Democratizing Access to Air Mobility

Ascent:Democratizing Access to Air Mobility

Whilst working as a senior advisor for an investment company in 2017, Lionel Sinai- Sinelnikoff became acutely aware the industry was at a crossroads. On one hand it was seen as modern and dynamic, but on the other hand it was still very old fashioned. It was around that time that the sharing economy was booming, Uber had become a household name, and new sites like AirBnB were beginning to gain popularity. And whilst several services had begun to spring up offering flight sharing on helicopters and private jets, the concept was yet to take off.

Before joining the investment, company Lionel had worked at Airbus Helicopters for 14 years, where he worked alongside operators in Latin America and Asia to help develop and open up new markets. This gave him an inside understanding of the problems and issues faced in the region, especially in urban mobility. Lionel gives the example of the world’s second most congested city Manila – a sprawling city with a huge population and the traffic gridlock to go along with it. It was Manila that Ascent chose to start its operations in, not only due to its famous congestion, but also because the Philippines regulators were known to be forward thinking.

Ascent’s goal was to get people moving differently, democratizing access to air mobility. To do this, it needed the buy in from various stakeholders. This included the helicopter operators, helipad owners, as well as the local regulators. With strategic partners in hand, Ascent launched operations in 2019, testing the market with a shuttle type concept between different locations. The company soon pivoted more towards on-demand rideshare and charter flights, which is where the company is today.

For the end user, the passenger flying, booking a trip with Ascent is as seamless as it can be. From the online platform, passengers chose where they want to go, and any ancillary options that they might need. This can include a complete door-to-door service, where a car picks up the passenger from their departure point and takes them to the helicopter, as well as a car the other end to take them to their final destination. For the user, this process seems easy and straight forward, but in the background, a lot of work is being done to bring everything together. “We bring together all the different stakeholders from the demand side, on the supply side and as well as the regulator. And then we run and we orchestrate the journey.” Says Lionel.

Although Ascent uses helicopters now, Lionel says that this is just a steppingstone until eVTOLs become available. As he himself says, its better to do the groundwork now and have the technology in place ready for when they become available. “We started with helicopters today because they exist with compatible regulation in place, and it helps us to learn and set everything up for when the eVTOLs come into play. We know it’s not a zero to one game, so you need to prepare step by step.” Says Lionel.

That preparation has seen the company add Bangkok to its list of operational cities, with more to come. The company is actively working on two additional cities that should become operational soon, with Lionel saying that the company has built up its capabilities in those cities and will be ready to begin services soon after they get the go ahead to do so.

It is likely that those cities are, for the time being at least, still in Asia, but Ascent isn’t only focused on the Asia-Pacific region, it has its sights set firmly on global expansion.

“We are building a scalable and sustainable company. While our vision is large, our ambitions are high, we are moving pragmatically. We do have several other projects running, we have partners in some other countries, and we are crafting step by step what the approach should be. We have now the ability to trigger, even if we are very remote, and we might start with in some countries with a different model in the beginning, just to try to be more compatible with the needs of the country.” Says Lionel.

To orchestrate ecosystems, deliver seamless air mobility journeys and help make market decisions, the company has built up its proprietary technology to help collect and analyze huge chunks of data, including behavioral data on helicopter flights, air operations, mobility requirements within and around urban environments. This helps the company understand where demand is coming from, where and how Ascent is likely to be successful. This is just one stage of the analysis though, as other factors can become more important – including regulatory challenges.

For now, the company is looking for partners to help it expand, with Lionel’s short-term focus being on the creation of what he calls ‘Absolute Travel Bubbles’ which would see the company having the capability of being able to transport people safely from one place to another, up to across international borders. To do this, Ascent would need the buy in of various stakeholders, including airlines. “We can collaborate with other stakeholders such as airlines, and private jet companies to create Absolute Travel Bubbles from door-to-door, mostly by air.”

For the foreseeable future, that is likely to rely heavily on helicopters, as Lionel thinks it is most likely that we will see eVTOLs flying within the next few years in strictly limited conditions, as part of the learning process and due to the current constraints with batteries, regulatory challenges linked to traffic and safety, and business viability. “We look forward to welcoming eVTOLs as soon as they are ready and are happy to help capture what is needed from a market perspective based on data, experience and activities.” Says Lionel.