Sara Aslam’s daily commute to work was a chore she didn’t particularly enjoy.
As a corporate employee, getting to work on time was not only a professional requirement but essential to operating efficiently.
But a long wait for her Careem drivers, delayed or cancelled rides, peak traffic rates and unease about solitary drives to a far-off place were hindering her mobility —and negatively impacting her job performance.
When a friend suggested she look up Airlift, a new ride-sharing app, Aslam’s interest was piqued; she’d seen their logo on buses around Lahore.
Airlift, an app-based daily pick and drop service, essentially connects potential passengers with private bus operators who commute across major residential and commercial hubs of Lahore and Karachi. It offers a fleet of premium quality buses (and vans), that have fixed routes, stops, timings and prices.
Aslam says, “A few months ago, I started seeing coasters with the red Airlift logo on them, but had no idea what it was. To my surprise, the answer to my predicament was right there. The app wasn’t just simple and easy to navigate, but the routes were pre-planned, timings were fixed and the prices were more than reasonable. All I had to do was book a ride and show up to the bus stop."
Initially apprehensive about taking an unknown bus service to and back from work, she now feels Airlift was the perfect solution.
“My commute time has decreased significantly, as I opt for an earlier bus and my monthly transport cost is less than half of what it was. I now have a set routine for work, and save a lot more time in the process.”
She continues, “Getting dropped to the pick-up point in the morning is not a problem, and luckily, the drop-off point is quite close to where I work, so I don’t mind walking.”
Aslam says the service has given her an alternative to other public transport options, which are often crowded, and other expensive ride-hailing substitutes, where she felt vulnerable and unsafe.
According to her, more and more women are opting for the daily commute service —and with air-conditioned buses, reserved seats and an app-based real-time tracking system—it’s no surprise that Airlift has become popular as a cost-effective choice for young professionals, students and daily commuters.
Maryam Fatima, an assistant professor of mathematics at the Lahore Garrison University (LGU), was introduced to Airlift five months ago when one of her students downloaded the app and explained how it worked.
Fatima says it has changed her commuting experience for the better.
“It saves a lot of time as compared to other public transport. It also saves a lot of money as you pay a reasonable amount to get to anywhere in the city. Getting to work comfortably and on time leaves you with more energy for the rest of the day, and increases your work potential.”
More importantly though, Fatima says travelling on Airlift’s buses has been a safe and reliable experience for her.
“Mostly employees and students take the bus so you’re never alone. And as a woman, you also feel more comfortable when you see other women on your routes.”
She continues, “In my opinion the Airlift buses are much safer than any other public transport because they’re constantly being monitored.”
Syed Mehr Haider, executive director at Airlift, told Images, “We take the safety and security of our users, especially female commuters, very seriously. We have control rooms where everything is monitored —from the signing in of the drivers before they take up their route, to providing back-up options, or sending real-time notifications of the bus’s location."
"The drivers themselves go through a strict screening process, where all their documents, ratings and licenses are thoroughly vetted. We’ve even created a rating system and a database to categorise them.”
He goes on, “We even have in place extensive checks and balances with the transport companies we pay. Furthermore, all our vehicles have trackers and we’re soon introducing CCTV cameras in them.”
According to Haider, forty-seven percent of Airlift’s users are women commuters. Additionally, they plan to introduce an ‘Airlift Pink’, a separate bus for women commuters only.
But despite its layered safety checks, women commuters say there are always some routes that have more women users and some with less.
Durresameen, whose workplace is located on Karachi’s Chundrigar road, says, “It is safe for women to travel even though the men to women ratio doesn’t really match as there are more men, but they treat us with respect and make us feel comfortable.”
While Durresameen’s place of work is a minute’s walking distance away from her drop-off location, there are women who say sometimes Airlift’s bus stops are quite a distance away from their workplaces or homes which makes it an inconvenient option.
Mehran Mustafa, a freelance journalist based in Lahore, says, “The pick-up bus stop is five minutes away from my house so my brother drops me in the morning. But I have to take either a rickshaw or Careem from the drop-off location to my workplace. Although the app shows me an 8-10-minute walking time to my workplace, in a crowded area, I don’t prefer to do that.”
Mustafa says she’ll continue taking Airlift because her monthly transport cost, despite the extra trip, has come down considerably.
Osama Shaukat moved to Lahore for work about two years ago. A PR manager at a technology firm, his daily commute from DHA to Tricon Tower and back would cost up to Rs20,000 or more monthly, on ride-hailing services.
Recommended to him by a colleague, Shaukat downloaded Airlift’s app and booked a ride on his preferred route.
Despite his first five rides being free, his monthly expenditure on transport has come down significantly since. He says, “My transport cost the first two months was under Rs3,000. Moreover, the buses are punctual, the drivers are professional and the cliental, which is mostly corporate, is peaceful.”
Shaukat says the system is easy to navigate, “On weekends the app usually opens its bookings. Once you choose a destination, it will give you options for different routes and their bus stops and ask you to book a ride. You then get a confirmation number followed by notifications about the whereabouts and timings of your preferred bus on the day of your ride.”
He continues, “When you board the bus, your name is checked in the dashboard. Right now, you can only pay on card, but September onwards, they’ll start the ‘pay now or pay later’ system.” As a user, he has to buy Airlift’s bundle package.
Prices of bus rides were initially as low as Rs50 per route, but Airlift has since revised their pricing. Shaukat says he recently received a notification about this price revision.
“I just booked my rides for next week. Surprisingly, I noticed that on the same route the cost doubles on the 6:18 pm route (Rs110) while the one at 6:26 is still Rs50. While they’re only a few minutes apart, the jump is quite big.”
Shaukat thinks they’ve started charging people for peak hours. He says the more people book a bus at a given time, the more expensive it gets. “6:18 is prime time for people coming back home.”
Haider, on the other hand, says, “Our introductory price of Rs50 is still active on majority of the routes in Lahore. However, we are testing distance-based pricing as well. But in a nutshell, it will still be much less compared to Uber/Careem and daily fuel cost of personal vehicles.”
He says the 6:18 route cost more because prices weren’t fixed across all shifts at the time.
Airlift is still considered to be a success among its users. And what initially started off as fifty rides has now turned into tens and thousands of routes across the two cities, with plans to introduce the service in other tier 1 cities, like Islamabad.
In its own words, Airlift is a home-grown company, that is ‘made in Pakistan, made for Pakistan.’
Co-founded by Usman Gul, who oversees the business side, and Ahmed Ayub, who handles the tech element, the ride-hailing app has grown rapidly in a short span of time.
And with an upward trajectory, the company is spearheading the third wave of ride-sharing, where higher capacity vehicles play an important role in inner-city commute.
Haider says, “By technologically connecting bus-owners and commuters, Airlift provided a market-based solution that brought together consumers and suppliers, or demand and supply. We target the daily commuter—corporate crowd, students and professionals— and our routes are demand based. Which means if 8-10 daily commuters give their feedback regarding a certain route, those might be introduced.”
He continues, “About 20% of the market uses Careem and Uber, and 20% uses Bykea; we’ve tapped into the remaining 60%. In addition, by accessing remote areas and bringing them in the fold of a mass transit system, we compliment the government.”
Interestingly, by utilising vehicles that were already present in the market, Airlift does not only want to create an efficient and modern mass transit system with higher capacity vehicles— linking different parts of the city to one another— but additionally wants to reduce congestion and pollution levels on the roads by giving people, some who already have cars, other options to decrease their carbon footprint.
Since its launch in 2018, the startup has reportedly raised seed financing of $2.2 million from a number of angel investors across Pakistan, Singapore and the US, and is now gearing up to fuel its growth internationally.
Airlift’s strengths lie not only in its facilitation of a fast and reliable access to daily commute, but in its ability to comprehend localised inefficiencies and provide native solutions; in less than a year, it has come up as viable solution for a generation that values time, safety and urban mobility.