In the seventies, commuting into Manhattan was a bit different. Starting in 1953, a helicopter company called New York Airways connected New York City to surrounding airports. As the company grew, it began to service 500,000 commuters a year for as little as $5 a ticket (the equivalent to $40 today) that brought you right to your gate to hop on an airplane. That all changed in 1977, when the Pan Am building in New York, which facilitated connections between trains, planes, and helicopters, experienced a major accident. A crash on the rooftop killed 5 people and immediately brought an end to helicopter commuting into the city. New York Airways went out of business in 1979. New York Airways was not the only company that tried to bring helicopter commuting to the masses – even Donald Trump took a shot at trying to start a helicopter commuting business. But all these companies eventually failed.
The amount of time that it saved commuters was the biggest advantage, but between the noise, danger, and rising fuel costs, the viability of the concept waned. The total number of helicopters in the air around Manhattan has steadily increased thanks to private charters and tourist sight-seeing rides, and so the idea of helicopter commuting isn’t completely dead yet. Even though there aren’t cool and ultra-convenient roof top landings as there once was at the Pan Am building, a new company is trying to bring the idea back. In 2015, Blade began offering helicopter flights from New York City to locations like the Hamptons, Nantucket, or even just to beat the commute from New Jersey. It’s a high-cost operation, with tickets starting around $200 to get from the bay helipads to JFK. Not exactly the most frugal way of travel.
What makes this heli-commuting company different is its business model, similar to Uber’s, which makes it essentially ridesharing for helicopters. The company itself doesn’t own any helicopters, opting instead to sign up off-duty private charters or sight-seeing helicopters to transport customers. This allows for the company to keep its own costs down since it doesn’t need to pay for maintenance and other up-keep associated with the helicopters. Blade transfers these savings to their customers. Still, Blade has to combat the high cost-per-hour flight of a helicopter. Helicopters are less efficient than a comparative size air plane. This makes long distance flight harder, but the helicopter obviously beats out an airplane when it comes to accessibility. That’s why city transportation makes the most sense, as helicopters don’t need long runways to land and take off. Blade targets these areas like around Manhattan and other places without runways.
In reality, Blade is targeted to consumers whose time is more valuable than their money. The amount of time saved getting in and out of Manhattan, especially during rush hour, makes commuting into the city much easier. However, at $200, the price tag still remains out of the reach of most consumers. But it’s not just the prohibitive cost: the volume needed to bring in the amount of commuters just isn’t there and neither is the infrastructure like landing pads and air traffic control. Many of the helicopters are limited to six passengers at a time and only a few trips per hour are made.
The company has created very luxurious waiting areas around the city too, since, like regular air travel, you may have to wait a long time for your ride, thus continuing to increase their prices to target higher end customers. It is very unlikely that we will reach a point in the near future where the majority of commuting is done in the sky, but the idea clearly has some potential.
In the future, Blade hopes to be able to take advantage of technology that is already reinventing the automotive industry: electricity. There are a few concepts out there for a full-size all-electric helicopter. But at current stages, it is nothing more than an idea – battery technology has not yet reached a point where the power to output ratio makes sense for prolonged flight. If we ever reach that point, helicopter commuting could make a lot of sense. Electric helicopters could eliminate two huge problems with current helicopters: noise and cost. The fuel cost is much lower with electricity and maintenance is significantly less compared to a gasoline powered motor. The noise of an electric helicopter would be less too, making it a viable option for commuting into highly populated areas.
Rooftop landings will most likely never come back into fashion, no matter how good the technology gets. The risk is just too high and after a series of accidents, fear remains. So hey, maybe America shouldn’t worry as much about the infrastructure of its roads and bridges, but instead just build helipads all over the country…maybe.
“BLADE – The Sharpest Way to Fly.” BLADE, www.flyblade.com/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwz_TMBRD0ARIsADfk7hQecBFzzY9em7szWrLCmgqs7rzALo2F5gbnnG21ORYoWQzRDWAQivQaAsMXEALw_wcB.
Bloomberg, director. The Death and Life of Helicopter Commuting. YouTube, 10 Aug. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nbz5VFilxY&t=425s.
Lorraine V Ash, LORRAINE ASH. “Helicopters Offer 12-Minute Morristown-Manhattan Commute.” Daily Record, 28 Apr. 2015, www.dailyrecord.com/story/news/local/2015/04/28/helicopters-offer-minute-morristown-manhattan-commute/26474499/.
Roberts, Jeff John. “Blade Wants to Be the Uber for Helicopters. But It Faces a Fight.” Blade Wants to Be the Uber for Helicopters. But It Faces a Fight. | Fortune.com, Fortune, 15 Sept. 2015, fortune.com/2015/05/21/blade-helicopter-app/.