Helicopters have been whisking the wealthy from Manhattan to New York’s airports for decades. Now the ride costs as little as $195, and you can book it via a smartphone.
In 2014, when Rob Wiesenthal founded Blade Urban Air Mobility, a chopper ride to John F. Kennedy Airport-13 miles from Manhattan-started at $3,000, he says. Wiesenthal has been able to chop that price after finding efficiencies in fueling, equipment and scheduling.
A new, efficient helicopter model from Bell Helicopter, one of the companies Blade uses to arrange its flights, is key to its continuous, lower-priced service.
“You used to have to charter an entire aircraft, and people were using the wrong aircraft for the mission — an expensive, gas-guzzling helicopter,” says 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’re using the most fuel-efficient jet engine that Bell has available,’’ Heyburn says.
Getting to this price point took about five years. “We began chartering. Then we started testing specific days and times, and this is what was enabled by our partnership with Bell,” says Heyburn. “We’d been incrementally lowering the price and testing the way consumers want to fly. Everything came together at the right time.”
Blade has lowered the price without compromising safety, Wiesenthal says, and his company is the first to add continuous service 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. Blade 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. Flights leave multiple times an hour.
“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.
Such use of helicopters in New York dates from 1965, when they were used to circulate between the roof of the MetLife Building (then the Pan Am Building) and JFK’s Pan Am terminal, until 1968. It resumed briefly in 1977, until in May of that year a New York Airways helicopter blade broke off, killing three people waiting to board on the helipad, as well as a pedestrian on the street far below.
By 2010, helicopters were making 80,000 takeoffs from New York, according to the Economic Development Corp. Flash forward to now, when more than 160 million people a year go to and from airports surrounding the city. The average ground speed in New York over the past decade has plunged, from 11 mph to 7.8 mph. “That adds up,’’ Wiesenthal says.