We live in a gee-whiz time when catching a ride is as easy as opening a cell phone app. Uber may not be as futuristic as “Beam me up, Scotty,” but it certainly has caused turbulence with the taxi industry. Now, Uber wants to transform how we get around in the air. Enter UberChopper, an exciting new way to request a helicopter taxi that is creating great interest and great concern at the same time.
Compared to air travel by jet, riding in a helicopter to get from point A to point B is not something the average American is used to doing. Truthfully, it probably won’t be commonplace for some time to come because vertical flight is far more expensive per hour than fixed-winged flight. Still, in certain American cities like Los Angeles and New York your chances of hopping a chopper to get to a weekend hideaway or to beat the traffic to the airport are much higher than elsewhere.
Uber has been experimenting with providing shared helicopter rides for a few years now. In 2013, it offered exclusive helicopter rides to New Yorkers wishing to get to their Hampton, Long Island retreats without having to battle the mind-numbing traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Uber again offered helicopter service during the United States Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. They also partnered with helicopter flying services to ferry people at the Cannes Film Festival, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and most recently at the Sundance Film Festival. Uber’s efforts have been met with both resistance, as well as with success.
Not the first, but potentially the biggest.
The idea of using a helicopter as a taxi is not a new one. In the early 1950s, New York Airways was created to ferry people to various New York Airports. It operated through the late 70s, picking up passengers from the top of what was then called the Pan Am Building and flying them to various New York airports. The service was suspended in New York after a serious fatal accident in 1979.
More recently, the helicopter has become a jet setter’s taxi. In Los Angeles, many studio executives use helicopters to transport themselves from Malibu to studios in L.A. In Texas the helicopter is the Oil Executive’s mode of transportation for getting to drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
New York of late has given rise to a new helicopter phenomenon: the helicopter ride share. In the past two years, three companies have come into existence specializing in helicoptering groups of people from downtown New York to the Hamptons or to New York Area airports. They are Blade, Gotham Air and Uber. All of these services are set up for ride-shares for four to six passengers. Just like a shared taxi ride in Manhattan, the cost of the ride is divided by the passengers, thus bringing a flight that could cost upwards of $2000 down to mere hundreds per passenger.
Please Note: Unlike on-demand flights for fixed wing aircraft owners, the FAA has not ordered on-demand helicopter companies to cease and desist. The reason is that booking agents, like Uber, connect customers with helicopter charter companies that employ commercial-rated pilots. The problem with the fixed wing services was that they were connecting passengers with non-commercial-rated private pilots, which the FAA deems a safety problem.
Why Uber Could Become The Biggest Player.
UberChopper may never become as ubiquitous as street Uber, but for those living in the fast lane it might become as convenient.
Uber not only has a national presence but is gaining international recognition as well. Recently it partnered with aviation giant Airbus, to further expand on-demand helicopter services. That partner also known as the European Aerospace Consortium happens to make, among other things, helicopters.
The partnership between software app and aviation hardware was recently tested at the Sundance Film Festival. Airbus provided its H125 and H139 helicopters and Uber provided the helicopter pilots together with an affluent consumer base wishing to cut time and complication out of travelling to and from the Sundance festival.
Why would Airbus consider such an arrangement? Current economics. With oil prices plunging, oil and gas companies, which have been the mainstay helicopter client, have cut back on new helicopter orders. Hence, Airbus is looking to grow their market by looking for new ways their helicopters are used, and by whom.
How did the Airbus/Uber partnership fair at Sundance?
For the cost of $200 per person during the day, and $300 a person at night, a Sundance attendee could take a fifteen minute flight to the Festival beating the crowds and the traffic. For many it was worth the money to share a helicopter ride with several other Festival goers.
There was, however, a snag. People in the quiet countryside around the Festival began to complain about the noise. The Sheriff of Summit County ordered a halt to the flights claiming that the landing zone was illegal and that both Uber (and competing helicopter service Blade) needed permits.
A District Judge ruled those who sued the helicopter services did not have enough evidence that county zoning rules were being violated, or that permits were required. The solution was an alternate landing site agreeable to both UberChopper and local residents, and as they say, the show went on.
One last note about the viability of on-demand helicopter services.
Despite the compromises that were struck at Sundance, helicopter on-demand chopper services still face some challenges from localities, like Summit County. You may recall last year the townspeople of East Hampton and South Hampton on Long Island, sought to put a curfew on helicopter landings due to noise pollution issues. Residents along the West Side of Manhattan have been seeking to curb helicopter flights up and down the Hudson corridor for years now, claiming that noise is so constant, there is little peace 24/7.
Festivals like Sundance encourage on-demand helicopter service for a limited time. Operations like Blade and Gotham Air and now Uber in Manhattan represent a more permanent service. The battle lines between folks on the ground and folks who want ride share in the air, have not and will not, go away. Not soon at any rate. As long as Uber has an app and someone has an available helicopter /pilot, it looks like on-demand chopper service is here to stay.