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Stuck in traffic? Hail a helicopter

In New York City, which is saddled with gridlocked roads and slow and unreliable public transit, more and more of those who can afford to are flying over it all

By James Barron
Published: Aug 3, 2019

Stuck in traffic? Hail a helicopterSophie Covillard, a customer heading to the Hamptons, boards a Blade helicopter service flight, at the West 30th Street Heliport in Manhattan, June 27, 2019. Helicopter service is blossoming across the New York region, showing how income inequality affects even the basic commute. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Aakash Anand, who was on his way to Kennedy International Airport, looked out the window at the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn. “I’m not sitting in that bumper-to-bumper traffic,” he said happily.

He was right. He was 3,000 feet above the traffic, in a helicopter.

In New York City, which is saddled with gridlocked roads and slow and unreliable public transit, more and more of those who can afford to are flying over it all.

Helicopter service is blossoming in the region, not just to the area’s three main airports but also to the Hamptons, a popular playground for the rich. The Hamptons, on the East End of Long Island, have the same downside as the airports: Getting there by car or commuter train can be no fun at all.

Of course, helicopter travel is fun if you have the money to pay for it, which would leave most New Yorkers sharing the pain on the ground while the privileged fly overhead — yet another manifestation of the income inequality that has come to define life in a new Gilded Age.

But for the fortunate few like Anand, it can be enjoyable to look down on one of those New York traffic jams that seem to go on as long as the Hundred Years’ War.

And sitting in a fancy departure lounge enjoying a cocktail is far more enjoyable than stewing in an unmoving car.

“The exclusivity of it, I like that,” said Tami Fox, a writer who has flown by helicopter to Southampton. “I like the efficiency. I’ll be there by sunset with a glass of rosé in my hand.”

Uber, which has transformed the way people travel on the ground, is moving into the airspace; it started helicopter service to Kennedy in early July.

Another company, Blade, started flying to New York’s three major airports — Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International — in the spring after testing the routes in previous years. It said ridership was flourishing, though it declined to provide figures.

The company said it had also seen high demand for service to towns its helicopters fly to on Long Island: East Hampton, Southampton, Montauk, Sag Harbor and Westhampton.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, said helicopter traffic has increased in recent years. At La Guardia, there were 1,096 helicopter takeoffs and landings last year, compared with 874 in 2017, a 25% increase. At Newark Liberty, there were 4,391 helicopter takeoffs and landings last year, up from 3,626 in 2017, a 21% increase.

At Kennedy, there were 1,966 takeoffs and landings in the first five months of this year, up from 1,064 during the same period a year ago, an 84% increase.

The jump in helicopter traffic has upset some people on the ground below the flight path who say they have to listen to the incessant roar of the vehicles.

“There’s a bunch more helicopters than there used to be,” Betty Brayton, the chairwoman of a local community board in Queens, said, adding that there is also more noise. “Just because somebody’s got a couple hundred bucks to get to the airport doesn’t mean they should be doing that to the negative impact of somebody else. They can get to the airport the same way everybody else gets to the airport.”

The increase in helicopter traffic has also raised concerns about safety — a pilot was killed when a private helicopter crashed on the roof of an office building in Midtown Manhattan in June — and three City Council members recently called on the Federal Aviation Administration to ban “nonessential” helicopter travel over the city.

Anand’s trip on a Blade helicopter took less than eight minutes from liftoff at the West 30th Street Heliport in Manhattan to landing at Kennedy, where Blade had sport-utility vehicles waiting. The SUVs drove him and the other passengers on his Blade flight to the airline terminals, where they boarded their commercial flights.

The helicopter ride cost $195, about $100 more than a typical Uber ride would cost, about $135 more than a taxi trip and $187.25 more than a subway-and-AirTrain combination.

To one passenger, James Kogut, the price was not exorbitant.

“If you value your time, paying this kind of money to get a couple of extra hours is worth it,” said Kogut, 30, an associate broker in a Manhattan real estate firm who was bound for a JetBlue flight from Kennedy to Reno, Nevada, and a bachelor party in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

In the New York area, taking a helicopter to the Hamptons has long been a way that people with money are different. “It’s conspicuous consumption,” said Bob Mann, an aviation industry analyst. “It’s instantaneous satisfaction, or almost.”

But chartering a helicopter costs $1,500 and up, and if there is only one passenger, there are several empty seats.

One goal of Blade is “moving the word ‘indulgence’ away from helicopters,” according to its chief executive, Rob Wiesenthal. By offering what amounts to ride-sharing in the sky, Blade, which also has operations to airports and other destinations around San Francisco and Los Angeles, has made helicopter flights less expensive if still not affordable for everyone.

“We basically say, look, congestion in the city has never been worse,” he said. “We turn a two-hour drive into a five-minute flight. We say this is not an indulgence, this is mobility.”

Uber said its mission is different from Blade’s. “We’re not trying to launch helicopter service for the 1%,” Matt Wing, an Uber spokesman, said. “We’re just trying to test for the future.”

The company’s operation in New York is a dress rehearsal for an aerial ride-sharing network elsewhere, using not helicopters but what are essentially air taxis — electric vertical takeoff and landing craft, designed to rise straight up like a helicopter but fly like a fixed-wing aircraft.

Uber said it expects to begin test-flying such machines next year in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles areas. They will have pilots, at least at first, and the aircraft will need federal approval — and permission from local authorities if they are to take off or land from the tops of buildings in downtown areas.

First, Wing said, Uber wanted to master what will be involved on the ground. “You order it, the car takes you to the heliport, you get in the helicopter, it takes off, it lands, you get out and another car takes you to your terminal,” he said.

The helicopter operation to Kennedy is aimed at figuring out how to make each part of the trip unfold seamlessly. That was an important reason behind Uber’s decision to fly to Kennedy: It is one of the world’s busiest and most complicated airports. Uber figures if service works there, it can work anywhere.

Although the services have added to the traffic in the skies over New York City, Mann, the aviation analyst, said traveling by helicopter is “never going to be a mass-market thing.”

“It’s either going to be high-net-worth individuals or high-time-value individuals, or people who are out for a lark and a joy ride,” he said.

Dietrich Stephan, a geneticist and entrepreneur from Pittsburgh, was in the second category. His decision to take a Blade helicopter to the Hamptons for a meeting “was spur of the moment,” he said.

He had dreaded “facing near 100-degree weather, slogging through Penn Station, switching at Jamaica and spending three hours on the Long Island Rail Road,” he explained. “Someone in my last meeting said, ‘You should look into Blade.’ I said for $195, it was worth it.”

He was misinformed. While the fare to Kennedy is $195, a ride to the Hamptons starts at $695 and can cost about $1,400, depending on the type of aircraft. The $795 Stephan was charged did not faze him.

“I decided you only live once,” he said. “I do have to be there for a meeting.”

©2019 New York Times News Service