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Would You Opt For a Helicopter Instead of a Taxi?

On a business trip in a big city, you or I get are likely to get to and from the airport using Uber or Lyft, a regular taxi, a hotel shuttle, a SuperShuttle, or public transit.

But a helicopter? Actually, I’ve done it myself, from a heliport near the foot of Wall Street on the east side of Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport. By road, that trip can take an hour or two, depending on traffic. By helicopter, swooping at 1,000 feet down the river, past the Status of Liberty and over Brooklyn, it took all of eight minutes.

That was in the summer of 2006, and the reason I paid the $159 fare (or, rather The New York Times paid it) was for my Times column about the revival that year of commercial helicopter service between New York City and the three airports. That service had come to a halt more than 20 years earlier, after a horrific accident in 1979 when a helicopter tipped over on the heliport atop the 800-foot-tall Pan Am Building (now MetLife Building), killing four passengers and sending debris to the street where a pedestrian was killed.

I forget what the taxi fare would have been in 2006 for my Wall Street-to-JFK trip, but it’s now in the range of $67 to $100 (with tip), depending on traffic. Still, business travelers are keeping helicopter shuttles thriving today to and from the three New York City-area airports. The fare is now about $195.

A $195 high-flying airport shuttle doesn’t really make a lot of sense for the average business traveler (or, more to the point, a corporate travel manager frowning at an expense account). Still, time is usually money, and obviously on a rare occasion, an expensive eight-minute airborne dash to the plane could arguably be justifiable over a one- or two-hour slog in traffic and, say, a potential missed international flight. If so, I wish you luck making that case, and please let me know by e-mailing me at joe@lola.com.

But a recent helicopter accident – again, in New York, when a chopper crash-landed on the roof of a 55-story midtown building in June, killing the pilot – highlights some serious questions, especially as helicopter flights over big cities, whether for business transportation or for thrill-seekers and selfie-snappers on leisure trips, become ever-more popular. The questions include: How many unnecessary helicopters in the skies over major cities is too many?

Incidentally, even Uber is planning to get into the act, starting in New York in July and expanding elsewhere, with an on-demand (rather than scheduled) service between a heliport at the tip of Manhattan and JFK called Uber Copter, with “dynamic pricing” (an estimated $200 to $225 a person). That announcement energized opponents of commercial helicopter flights over the city, who are especially unnerved by noise and safety worries caused by the proliferation of tourism flights. So as commercial business-travel helicopter flights increase nationally and abroad, they will only add to the chopper clatter over major cities, critics say.

If you want some urban examples, just look up to the skies and check out the giddy marketing: In Chicago, a helicopter tour company offers sightseers the opportunity to “kiss the sky and skim the beautiful skylines.” In Houston, tourists can swoop over “skyscrapers, stadiums, huge city parks, waterways. … ” In Las Vegas, sightseeing choppers offer “the magnificence of the Las Vegas Strip from a front-row seat in the sky!” .. In Boston, excursions offer the thrills and photo opportunities of “flying amongst the buildings as you take in the sites of Boston Harbor, USS Constitution, Faneuil Hall, the Golden Dome of the State House, Charles River, Fenway Park and much more!” The lists go on in city after city.

Internationally, the granddaddy of helicopter flying over the concrete and steel urban canyons is Sao Paolo, Brazil, with its gargantuan traffic jams and its lackadaisical zoning regulations that accommodate 215 heliports sending up over 2,000 helicopter flights a day. Most of these are for business travelers and tycoons, but even a concrete sprawl like Sao Paolo has its flights for tourists seeking thrills and, of course, selfie opportunities in the skies.

In anything-goes Sao Paolo, you can even book hot-air balloon rides to “soar above the city to enjoy a truly privileged aerial view,” says one of the tour promoters.

Hot air balloons adrift in a sky full of choppers! Now, there’s a concept. Just don’t anybody tell Uber.

MEMO PAD – Speaking of high anxiety, on June 10 a section of a glass floor panel on a viewing platform that allows visitors to stand and peer down 1,350 feet from the 103rd floor Skydeck at the Willis Tower in Chicago shattered under the feet of a woman and two children. Authorities said there was no real danger, as the panel was a protective sheet above the actual glass floor. The same thing happened in 2014 when glass flooring on the same ledge cracked under the weight of visitors.

… The top five cities with the highest average car rental rates at airports, according to a new survey of 50 locations by by Cheapcarrental.net: Cleveland ($84), Cincinnati ($82), Newark ($81), Anchorage ($80), and Boston ($74). The five cities with the lowest average rates: Los Angeles ($32), Las Vegas ($31), Jacksonville, Fla. ($26), Orlando ($24), and Miami ($23)

… The critically acclaimed, stunning HBO drama “Chernobyl” has inadvertently spurred a weird tourism (and selfie) surge at the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, site of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster. One excursion operator, TourRadar, an Austrian tour company, offers a “3-Day Exclusion Zone” package. Its brochure promises, in part: “You will see abandoned villages, memorial “to the heroes of Chernobyl, the channel where you can feed the giant catfishes” as well as a stop “on the viewing platform of reactor number 4 which exploded in 1986 … ”

…A new law in New Jersey requires that hotels provide electronic “panic button” devices for housekeepers and room-service workers, effective in January. The law is the first in the nation to mandate the devices, which allow workers to summon managers or security when they feel threatened in a guest room. Similar measures are being considered in Illinois, Florida and Washington state, and some major hotel chains including Marriott and Hilton are planning to voluntarily provide such devises to workers, the Associated Press reports.

Joe Sharkey would love to hear your comments on this post.  You can reach out to him at joe@lola.com.

 

 

 

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