Helicopters have been whisking the wealthy from Manhattan to New York’s airports for decades.
Now the ride can be booked via a smartphone for as little as US$195. And when traffic is heavy on those roads far below, that price – and the fact you're spending around five minutes darting in a helicopter from Manhattan to LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark – makes elite car services look much less appealing.
That’s why more and more business travellers are switching from Uber Black to Blade, according to Rob Wiesenthal, who founded the helicopter charter service in 2014.
In the same way that Uber doesn’t own its cars, Blade doesn’t own its helicopters. Wiesenthal partners with Airbus, Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter to arrange flights through more than 30 aviation operators, which in turn provide pilots.
Soaring above the traffic
Blade-booked choppers add run between LaGuardia and Manhattan’s Wall Street Heliport, as well as Newark and the East 34th Street Heliport. The JFK service that Blade started in March will continue from the West 30th Street Heliport across from Hudson Yards.
Wiesenthal sees those commutes as the pain points for its client base: traveling from the East Side of Manhattan to Newark or from the West Side to an outer borough airport most often means battling maddening city traffic.
During rush hour, rides in Uber’s top-tier Black SUV service commonly exceed $200 – and can take an hour, or even two.
“We’re seeing faster-than-expected adoption by people choosing to fly to the airport rather than driving,’’ Wiesenthal says. Over 75 percent of first-time customers have never flown in a helicopter before, and 22 percent of fliers to JFK have come back in the same month, according to Blade.
Flights take off every 20 minutes or so, from 7am to 7pm weekdays, and on Sunday afternoons and evenings.
If you show up early, you can be put on an earlier flight. If your arriving airline flight is delayed, you’ll automatically be put on a new helicopter, free.
The new service is “for someone who works in Midtown, has lunch at a great restaurant at Hudson Yards, and walks across the street at 1:30 p.m. and makes a 3:30 p.m. flight,” Wiesenthal suggests.
The average age of Blade’s clients is 38, and 55 percent of them are men; 95 percent of customers book on the mobile app.
“The biggest misconception is: This is not affordable for me,’’ says Wiesenthal. “We cut our teeth on the most demanding fliers,’’ he continues, although in three to five years, he’d consider lowering the price from $195 to the $70-to-$90 range.
Turn up and go
The regularly scheduled continuous service is significant, Blade says, because it makes it easier to hop a ride or to be flexible in your timing.
It also allows Blade to lower the price because, unlike charters, helicopters more reliably carry passengers in both directions, minimizing wasted resources.
Getting to this $195 price point took about five years, Wiesenthal reflects. When he launched Blade, a chopper ride to John F. Kennedy Airport – 13 miles (21km) from Manhattan – started at $3,000, he says.
“You used to have to charter an entire aircraft, and people were using the wrong aircraft for the mission – an expensive, gas-guzzling helicopter,” adds Will Heyburn, head of corporate development at Blade.
By increasing the number of people on each aircraft and operating only between the city and the airports, efficiency has improved steeply.
“We began chartering. Then we started testing specific days and times, and this is what was enabled by our partnership with Bell,” Heyburn explains. “We’d been incrementally lowering the price and testing the way consumers want to fly. Everything came together at the right time.”
Bell Helicopter’s new, fuel-efficient 206L-4 single-engine helicopter, which the company claims has a better safety record than the average twin-engine helicopter, is key to its continuous, lower-priced service.
Flying Blade’s Manhattan to JFK helicopter service
Flights to JFK land on Sheltair’s 4.5-acre plot on the loop of the main access road, and complimentary ground transportation in a black SUV to all commercial airline terminals is included.
The farthest drive to a commercial terminal is American Airlines at Terminal 8, which takes three minutes, absent heavy traffic.
For $150, an American Airlines representative will meet you after your helicopter arrives and transport you, via Cadillac, to expedited TSA screening and Admirals Club access; for $350 they’ll meet your plane and do the reverse, escorting you through baggage claim and onward to the helicopter.
Add $85 for flexible tickets, $75 weather insurance (for a cash refund, instead of a Blade credit), $85 for bags heavier than 20 pounds, $250 for luggage pickup up to two hours before your flights, $100 for meet and greet, and you’re easily nearing $800. But many business travelers don’t need such contingencies.
The JFK service breaks even for Blade when two to three people populate a flight that can accommodate six, which has been happening, Wiesenthal says.
Uber is fighting back, promising a product called Uber Air with partners that include Bell Helicopter and Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary.
“Dallas and Los Angeles will be the first to offer Uber Air flights, with the goal of beginning demonstrator flights in 2020 and commercial operations in 2023,” says Uber spokesman Mike Wing.