Just a quick, six minute flight across the New York City skyline can get a passenger from Manhattan to either Newark or JFK airport. Alas, those New York City helicopter airport transfers are not cheap. Gotham Air hopes to change the economics of the service, making such airport helicopter transfers approach affordable for the masses. The company is marketing the “Uber of helicopters” concept (apparently anything where you request a booking via a mobile device is an “Uber” now) as a way to bring the price down and increase customer numbers. And the initial price is low – only $99 for your first ride. And yet there are still a number of challenges facing the company.
For starters, there’s the part where the $99 fare is only for your first ride. After than the price jumps to $199-219, a number which is much less sexy.
There’s also a minimum number of passengers required for any flight to take off. Just because you book a seat doesn’t mean that the helicopter will fly. The company requires a minimum of four passengers for a flight to happen. And so, while the novelty of a $400 ride for a group of friends is cool, the $200/person price tag makes it rather less likely that lots of flights will be happening all over the place. The press release implies that there will be a shift from on-demand service to scheduled service later in 2015; it is unclear if the 4 passenger minimum will still exist at that point.
And, finally, Gotham Air service will not include TSA screening at the heliport in Manhattan, a benefit which US Helicopter did offer last time similar service was available. This significantly reduces the convenience factor of the service.
When explaining his motivation for launching the service CEO Tim Hayes noted that he once had to charter a helicopter to get a friend to the airport and was shocked at the $2,000 price tag for the trip. Keeping in mind that marketing partnerships and long-term agreements should bring down costs a bit it is still a bit difficult to understand how the company plans to break even on the operations unless it can fly at near 100% load factors almost all the time. Even the four seat minimum for the ad hoc service doesn’t hit 50% of that number. And there’s the part where Gotham Air is just a name; in the end Helicopter Flight Services is the company really running the operations.
Much like with US Helicopter odds are that the best chance Gotham Air has is getting the long-haul airlines to go in on promo deals where full-fare customers get the transfer for free. But even that wasn’t enough to drum up sufficient business for USH last time around. And it seems unlikely things have changed all that much this time.
Don’t get me wrong: If I can snag a $99 seat I’m almost certainly going to take the flight. I think it is tremendously fun and a great little splurge at that price point. But there are all sorts of open questions about the business model, actual demand for the service and true time savings outside of rush hour. Air Gotham is not the first to make a go of helicopter transfers between Manhattan and the local airports and probably won’t be the last. In the mean time, the ride is a ton of fun and worth the one-time splurge.
Go have some fun.
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