Uber Investors Are Wary as It Rides Into the Helicopter Business

June 13, 2019, 2:00 PM UTC

Really, helicopters?

Some investors were less than thrilled as Uber announced plans to launch a helicopter service called Uber Copter, with rides reportedly commencing July 9. The aerial service will be available to customers with Diamond and Platinum memberships to fly between Lower Manhattan and John F. Kennedy International Airport—setting them back about $200 to $225 for each eight-minute ride.

Still, although the ride-hailing company seemed optimistic about its new airborne service, some investors are concerned about Uber’s increasingly long list of unprofitable existing businesses.

Since debuting at $45 per share, Uber stock has fluctuated at a lackluster range compared to volatile counterpart Lyft. And many investors have cause to be concerned over Uber’s ever-increasing number of services—one of which are profitable yet.

“It’s definitely something that weighs on investor minds,” Justin Patterson, an analyst at Raymond James, said. “The most common question we get is ‘when will the business turn profitable?’ It’s still early. You’ve gone through a period of really intense competition that actually caused those early businesses – Eats and rides – to go from modest profitability to losses. And as the competitive market starts to rationalize, as that incremental investment starts to taper, that’s when you should start seeing profitability returns in the business.”

Still, going from modest profitability back into the red seems to have many investors on edge. In fact, according to Uber’s first quarter earnings report, the company lost some $1.01 million, and the announcement of the helicopter service pushed shares down slightly.

But according to Patterson, Uber isn’t taking too big of a chance on the new service.

“The key here is really minimizing the size of the bet in the near term, and leaning in more to it as that business moves more toward broader adoption,” Patternson said. “So at this point in time, it’s going to be a very small scale bet – not something that is a significant investment for the company.”

Small bet or not, some analysts see the integration of Uber Copter to be in-line with the company’s business model.

“I think the benefit of Uber overall is that it’s a platform, and you can layer on multiple different products and services,” Ronald Josey, an analyst at JMP Securities, said. “When you think about Uber Copter, it’s just another product that can drive more usage and awareness of Uber services overall.”

Still, for skeptical investors (and riders), Patterson claims Uber Copter will be a “very, very gradual work out,” and that the company still has lots of work to do with safety and scaling before the service is “ready for prime time and mass market adoption.”

With some 93 million monthly active platform customers to work with, the ride-hailing company certainly has a lot of users to cater to.

The timing of Uber’s new business reveal was not ideal in light of Monday’s helicopter accident in New York City that left one dead. But the accident didn’t seem to dampen Uber’s presentation of the air transportation service at the company’s annual Elevate conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

“Our plan is to eventually roll out Uber Copter to more Uber customers and to other cities, but we want to do it right,” Eric Allison of Uber Elevate told the New York Times.”The main goal of this initial venture is to understand the operations behind aerial vehicles.”

But despite the headlines and hype over the helicopter business, analysts maintain Uber’s main focus for the next few months will remain on their core business – namely, their rides and Uber Eats services. “I think that’s what we’re focusing on – okay, can you get the core ride business to rationality?” Josey said. “Can it be more rational with driver incentives and rider incentives coming down, and if so, how do you then build newer businesses like Eats and other platform companies? Copter is just one example, but that’s just New York.”

And to Raymond James analysts like Patterson, Uber’s helicopter news isn’t too consequential yet. “Air is not something that will be a material contributor to the business any time soon, it’s one that they’re minimizing their investment in, so it’s really more of a rides and Eats story for the time being,” Patterson said.

Uber shares dropped some 1.2% during the day on Tuesday, closing around 0.42% below the previous day’s close.

So far, investors don’t appear to be convinced that Uber Copter will be the vehicle that sends the company into the black.

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