Airport helicopter services in New York City are getting a lift from an unlikely newcomer: Ride hailing service Uber.
It’s one of Uber’s first forays into offering aviation services under its Uber Elevate branch, the company says. And depending on how the trial run goes, it could be extended to other cities around the country.
But at first, the service is confined to a single route, connecting lower Manhattan to JFK Airport; and it is limited to Uber’s Platinum and Diamond members, the top level of its rewards plan. The rate — $200 to $225 one-way depending on “surge” pricing — may be steep, but time-pressed travelers might be happy to pay that to avoid the notorious road traffic on the way to JFK Airport.
The service, which launched this week, is operated by Newark-based HeliFlite, via five-passenger choppers, which the company says meet the highest safety standards with two pilots manning each flight. Like its ground-based service, the helicopter can be summoned with the tap of an app on the same day, but users can also arrange for it up to five days in advance.
Meanwhile, competitors are not sitting still. Blade, a private aviation company, had already launched its Urban Air Mobility initiative in the New York area several months ago, with helicopter flights available to all three major airports serving the Big Apple (JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark) for $195. This week, the company rolled out a new Airport Passes program that will bring the cost down to as low as $95 per trip.
Ironically, Blade had earlier earned the moniker of “Uber of Helicopters” by offering private and shared helicopter rides in the Northeast and in several West Coast cities. Among other services, Blade also has a passenger lounge on Manhattan’s West Side near the new Hudson Yards complex; and says that it works with some large travel agencies and corporate travel departments.
But there may be a limit to how much additional competition this sector can sustain. Helicopter safety has been an issue in New York City following a spate of accidents this year, including a high-profile crash onto the roof of a midtown skyscraper just last month; no passengers were aboard, but the pilot died. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio apparently is no fan of the growing passenger chopper services, and recently called for a “full ban” on any helicopters flying over Manhattan. The airport choppers, however, generally do not fly over city streets, but, rather, take off from helipads located on the river.