Retail History: From Bell Helicopters To Blade And UberCopter


On this day in 1946, the future of commercial air transportation was forever reshaped: Bell Helicopter’s Model 47B was granted the first commercial helicopter license in the world.

As a result, carriers were able to quickly ferry passengers over short distances in the air. In 1953, for example, New York Airways took to the skies as a passenger carrier and offered a way for people to travel between New York City airports or from the airports to the city.

“New York Airways Flight 404 departing Newark Airport is about to take off,” an announcer said in a promotional video. “In exactly 12 minutes, passengers will land at the New York International Airport at Idlewild — a distance of 35 miles.”

The video then showed a view from the helicopter of gridlock on the highways — hardly an appealing place to spend time on the ground between airports.

“On the ground, 35 of the most congested commercial travel miles in the world,” the announcer continued. “But, by helicopter, along the skyline route — an unforgettable experience.”

The route was not terribly expensive, and it was cheaper than a cab. A flight only cost $9 — or $69.61 in today’s dollars. In comparison, cab rides were $19 — or $146.96 in today’s dollars.

By 1965, the company started service from the Pan Am Building in Manhattan. A year later, the service would count 23 scheduled passenger flights between the skyscraper and the newly renamed JFK Airport.

In 1977, the company would embark on a downward spiral when one the company’s helicopters crashed while trying to land on the Pan Am building. As a result of the incident, five people were fatally injured. New York Airways never was able to recover. High fuel costs during the energy crisis of 1973 and 1979 didn’t help the airline either: The company later filed for bankruptcy in 1979.

Today, its helicopters fly far away from the Big Apple — in Oregon.


Ridesharing Helicopters

Years later, Blade would provide helicopter service in New York with a 21st-century twist: The company would use an app to allow passengers to book seats on helicopters instantly.

Instead of seeking to serve airport travelers, the company began with flights to the Hamptons. It has since branched out to serve Nantucket, the Jersey Shore and even Los Angeles. And, yes, it offered rides to and from New York area airports as well.

For a limited-time promotion, Uber, too, got into helicopter transportation with the Uber Chopper. In 2014, the company looked to the sky through a partnership with Blade to help ferry passengers between Manhattan and the Hamptons as well as Manhattan and Montauk.

Passengers traveled on an Eurocopter AS350 using Uber. They booked their ride through Uber’s app, which sent users to the Blade app. Then the chopper picked riders up in Midtown Manhattan and safely deposited them at a beach resort.

That was Uber’s second one-day helicopter promotion: The year before, Uber partnered with Liberty Helicopters, whose fleet underpins Blade. Going forward, Uber hinted it might consider making chopper rides a permanent feature.

“I would see this as an experiment, as it was [in 2013],” Josh Mohrer, Uber’s general manager for New York, told The New York Times. “If the response from people who use the Uber app is very strong, and users suggest doing it every weekend, we can make that happen.”

And, in 2016, Uber offered an airborne option to a wider number of users, having teamed up with Airbus Group SE to facilitate on-demand flights in the latter company’s H125 and H130 helicopters.

That year, Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders said the Uber collaboration would be tested at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

“It’s a pilot project; we’ll see where it goes — but it’s pretty exciting,” Enders told The Wall Street Journal, echoing Mohrer’s comments.

But it wasn’t a first major event for Uber’s helicopter service. The venture had previously been offered to customers at the Cannes Film Festival and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

Later in 2016, Uber took a more ambitious tact: Those in São Paulo, Brazil could hail a helicopter using Uber.

And, yes, the service works like just like the company’s traditional service. But travelers beware: The helicopter doesn’t land on demand, but one can hail an Uber car to take them to the heliport.