All about Uber's $200 helicopter rides that let you bypass airport traffic
New Yorkers were introduced to Uber Elevate's latest development last week when Uber Copter rides to JFK airport became available to all riders with the Uber app. This comes just three months after the ride-hailing company began on-demand helicopter rides to NYC-based Platinum and Diamond rewards members. Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, invited Eric Allison, the head of Uber's Aviation Programs, on Talking Points, to find out why Uber decided to enter this market, their plans for growth and how it differs from its competitors.
Allison explains on the podcast Elevate's Skyport model, how this multi-modal journey works, the target demographic, and why anyone afraid of helicopter rides has nothing to fear because of Uber's partnership with HeliFlite.
"We really want to get this one right. And so, we're really focused on that full multi-modal end-to-end journey that can give our riders a really great experience."
Uber Copter is designed to be a time-saving mechanism — you won't be treated to a luxury lounge experience like you would if you were taking a BLADE, and the rides are only available if your pickup or dropoff location is below Houston Street in lower Manhattan. The helicopter rides are currently available both to and from JFK. TPG's Brendan Dorsey tested Uber Copter, and said his $216 ride, which included his UberX to the Wall Street heliport and the Uber from the private-aviation terminal to Terminal 5 at JFK, saved him about 30 minutes. A Uber Copter ride costs between $200-$225, depending on demand, whereas some Lyft and UberX rides can set you back $100 more or less and leave you in some serious traffic during peak travel times.
Allison and his team oversee all sectors of Uber Elevate, like UberEats via drone delivery and aerial ride-sharing with eVOLT (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft — think flying taxis. You can hear more about Allison's vision for Uber Elevate by listening above, or wherever you get your podcasts
Brian Kelly: Welcome to Talking Points. I'm your host, Brian Kelly. Today we're going to take to the skies, but not by plane. Let's talk drones, helicopters and more with the head of aviation programs at Uber.
Brian Kelly: Eric Allison, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Eric Allison: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Brian Kelly: Uber has a head of aviation program. Most people think Uber is the cars that get us around or the eats that come to us, so how long has Uber been focusing on air transport?
Eric Allison: I've been at Uber for about a year and a half, but the Uber Elevate team, the Uber Elevate program, which is the division of Uber that's focusing on flying things, has been around for about three years actually, but it was basically founded by the former chief product officer at Uber, and when we released a white paper on this idea of a future form of transportation using vertical takeoff and landing, all-electric aircraft that could be woven into the Uber network in a really interesting way, building on this network, amazing network of cars and drivers that we have right now on the ground, how do we extend that? How do we make it better?
Brian Kelly: Is Uber currently working on building a proprietary drone taxi, which is what --
Eric Allison: We're actually not. We're taking a little bit of a different approach to this than a lot of other people in the industry, so it's just the generic term that people use is urban air mobility or air taxis. It hasn't really settled out as to what exactly to call this. NASA calls it urban air mobility though, and so a lot of companies are really focusing on the vehicle, so new technology take the same type of electric powertrain technology that's in a Tesla batteries, motors, the power electronics that run the motors really efficiently, the computers that control the whole thing, apply them to aircraft, and you can make a new class of aircraft that's really different, take off and land vertically like a helicopter, fly on a wing like an airplane, be quieter, be safer. It'd be a lot cheaper to operate.
Eric Allison: That's the vision a lot of people are taking, and so, at Uber, we think that's great. We think that that vision of these vehicles is something that totally complements what we've built already, but we think that you need to provide the business case, the logic around what you do with these things. How is it going to be built or how is it going to work in the network? And so that's what we focused on is building out that logic around how do you use it.
Brian Kelly: By using normal helicopters or helicopters today, right?
Eric Allison: Yeah, that's exactly right. So what we're doing is, we have laid out a vision of how we want this network to work both in early days and at scale once the vehicles are ready. But to get going on that, to start to understand all the complications of how do you build a truly multimodal network that starts with a car trip, has an air leg, has a car trip on the other end, and it's all seamless single-button press using all the technology between behind the scenes to weave it all together, we decided we should start now because there's no way to learn except to actually do it.
Brian Kelly: I do remember several summers ago, Uber chopper to the Hamptons. I think, when I was in Rio for carnival, there might've been an Uber helicopter, Monaco maybe. What's been the strategy? You pop up and leave.
Eric Allison: Yeah, so all of the helicopter stuff that we've done up to this point has been basically stunts. I mean, they're promotions, so it's really cool. People love to ride in helicopters. It's fun to do it for a little bit of time, but it hasn't been really integrated into the experience of using Uber, and that's what's different about copters. We actually took a step back and said, "Look, we see that this is a great thing to do. It's a great promotion to run on a limited time, but how do you make this into something that people would want to use on a regular basis? And so how do you weave it into the product offering of Uber in a way that's seamless, end to end, and leverages the best of what we've already built to then make something that's really different?"
Brian Kelly: You guys are launching this in New York City. For years, we've had Blade, which is connecting the city to the shore, to the Hamptons, Nantucket, et cetera, so how is this different than what Blade is doing?
Eric Allison: We want to build this broader, scalable network when these new types of all-electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles are available And so I see Uber Copter as a version 0.1 of this future network that we're going to be building as we work with the partners. We're working with big aviation OEMs like Bell and Boeing and Embraer, as well as some startups like Karem and Jaunt and Pipistrel that are actually working on these vehicles that we are then building the technology to weave into the network. And so I see Copter as a way to start doing an initial version of that. It's limited. It's a single route right now, but, in this fully integrated end-to-end way, that's a vision of this future thing that we're going to be building.
Brian Kelly: It's going to be different than Blade in some ways. Let's go through the basics like where in Manhattan it leaves from versus Blade?
Eric Allison: We are fundamentally seeing this as a multimodal service. It's truly multimodal in that it'll show up in the product selector in the Uber app just like UberX or UberBLACK or the different products that we have, and then we figure out in the back end all the technology to get you the car, be pooling with other people simultaneously requesting, so it's essentially this on-demand, and we can use our --
Brian Kelly: Pooling the copter or pooling the car?
Eric Allison: Pooling the people into the copter, so, yeah, so if --
Brian Kelly: You can request the copters. It will take off at set times or --
Eric Allison: It's essentially on-demand. It's dynamically built as people request it basically, and so then, as someone requests it, we fill it with other people in based on the overall amount of demand that we have.
Brian Kelly: How far in advance can you request it?
Eric Allison: You can request it up to five days in advance and then we start building the dynamic schedules.
Brian Kelly: Five days in advance, I want to go to JFK. Do you automatically confirm me and you'll figure out ... and you're confident you'll fill it by then?
Eric Allison: Even if we don't fill it, it still goes, so it's really on-demand in that sense, and you can actually say we've built a new booking flow actually that's debuted in Copter. It's the first time it's been on the Uber network where you can actually say, "Arrive by __." So I want to arrive by 5:30 p.m., say, at JFK, and then we back-calculate everything and then we give you a push notification when we're dispatching the car.
Brian Kelly: Do you have the ability? I'm flying Delta Flight 401. If it's delayed, it'll automatically reschedule?
Eric Allison: It's a good idea. We don't have that, yeah, but, honestly, that's why we're doing this work because we know that -- Look, we think airport routes are really interesting initial early-adopter use case in this whole space. And so we think there's a lot of really interesting things to learn again by doing, which is why we decided to launch within a pretty high demand route.
Brian Kelly: Can you book just the copter or is it the whole experience?
Eric Allison: No, it's the whole experience. It's fundamentally multimodal, so you --
Brian Kelly: If you live near the heliport, you got to take a one-minute ride to get there?
Eric Allison: Yeah. We haven't had that happen yet, but, right now, it is multimodal where we're dispatching cars, and we're looking at what are the extensions of that in the future. I strongly believe that, as technology progresses, there's going to be more and more opportunities to weave different modes of transportation together so that you can, you as a user ... don't have to think about what mode you're taking, but rather you just think about where you want to go and what matters. Do you care about price? Do you care about speed? Do you care about exercise and steps maybe? We can build you an itinerary based on what your personal elasticities are to these different factors and personalize it.
Brian Kelly: How far off are these new, what do you call them, these new air vehicles? People [crosstalk 00:07:13] ...
Eric Allison: We --
Brian Kelly: ... drones, or what are you ... like how far off --
Eric Allison: They're not drones, but, yeah, electric vertical takeoff and landing, so the aircraft has a cumbersome name to call it, but --
Brian Kelly: They're piloted by a human pilots.
Eric Allison: They're piloted. Yeah, piloted by a human pilot initially, so we really believe that's the right starting point is with a human pilot. Fundamentally, this, aviation is really regulated. You can't introduce a new product into aviation without it getting certified, and certification has lots of components to it. And so there's the vehicle, but there's also the piloting rules, there's operating rules, and it all has to be done right from day one, and so we think that kind of a feasible, ambitious, but feasible timeline is start of commercial service in 2023.
Brian Kelly: All right, let's take a quick break right here. BRB. You launched when, and what's the initial pricing?
Eric Allison: We launched to an initial group of customers back in July. We actually launched in early July to, limited to our Diamond and Platinum Rewards members, so we launched on October 3rd to anyone with Uber app.
Brian Kelly: What is that? A helicopter will appear or --
Eric Allison: Right now, we have a geo-fence around the Lower Manhattan Heliport, and so if you're within the geo-fence or on the JFK side, it's bi-directional, it will show up in the hours that it's operating, so we're operating between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., depending on the day on weekdays, and so the rush hour, peak rush hour period and
Brian Kelly: Why would you geo-fence? Someone who works in Midtown won't see the --
Eric Allison: We're geo-fencing so we can guarantee the experience. We're only offering Copter if we're going to save you time, and so we're limiting the access to it initially based on our ability to guarantee the experience.
Brian Kelly: I work at One World Trade, a short from the heliport. I can go on and request, so what would be their estimated pricing for that?
Eric Allison: It's between $200 and $225 one-way, and that includes the car on both ends.
Brian Kelly: The car on both ends.
Eric Allison: It's a little bit variable in that we, because we have variable pricing on the -- in general, dynamic pricing based on demand ... but we anticipate varying between about $200 and $225.
Brian Kelly: You leave some of the Wall Street Seaport?
Eric Allison: The Wall Street Heliport, yeah.
Brian Kelly: What's the experience like? Once you get to the heliport, is there a lounge or --
Eric Allison: There's a space where you check in. You have to check in, verify identity. Our goal, though, is to make this as seamless as possible, so, again, we're trying to use our technology to dispatch the cars just in time, get all of the passengers who are going to be on the aircraft there just in time, minimize the amount of time that you're spending in terms of the check-in procedure and then get you on the helicopter, get the wheels up and get you to JFK. The goal is that you have to spend as little time as possible.
Brian Kelly: So there's no rosé?
Eric Allison: We don't think you'll have time to drink it.
Brian Kelly: I know one of the big limitations of helicopters at JFK is luggage. What's the luggage limitation?
Eric Allison: We, basically, have the FAA carry-on limits. That's what we're using. Yeah.
Brian Kelly: Do you have a service if I have a bigger bag to get it to JFK and connect or --
Eric Allison: We're not offering that at this point. It's something that we're looking at for the future, but we think that the core demographic we're offering this to, that FAA carry-on limitations is pretty much typical for that demographic.
Brian Kelly: Back in the day, you used to be able to, I forget, U.S. Helicopters, you would be able to do TSA at the heliport so that you can land airside. It's not available today. Is that something that you guys have in the works? Is that feasible even?
Eric Allison: We're super-aware of that, but it's not something that's imminent.
Brian Kelly: Got it. Time-wise, what are you confident in saying to someone, "I've disputed Blades' six minutes in the sky because there's always -- It takes a little while to take off?" Realistically, someone who works downtown, from leaving the office to getting to JFK, what's your [crosstalk 00:10:46]?
Eric Allison: I did it, and it was about, from opening the car door to getting to the Terminal 5, this is where I went on the test run, I think it was about 38 minutes.
Brian Kelly: 38, yeah, versus --
Eric Allison: It was 30-plus-minutes savings at that time that we were doing it.
Brian Kelly: What time of day was that?
Eric Allison: It was in the afternoon, weekday afternoon. I don't remember what the exact day it was.
Brian Kelly: What did you find out having this be the first regular service [inaudible 00:11:11]?
Eric Allison: We learned some really interesting things, mundane things. We have to make sure that the directions in the app to the heliport are really good because we can't assume that the riders know where it is, and so we have to make sure that the drivers can find the heliports and make sure the directions are really good. And then we had to work through the procedures of how do you efficiently move people to have a minimum amount of time.
Eric Allison: Again, the car stops, you open the door and get out. How much time between there? We track all of this, how much time it is between there and when you are actually wheels up in the helicopter, and so we are trying to put in a perspective of continuous improvement in what we're doing, and so we want to be -- have an amazing customer-obsessive experience in a way to make it just amazing for our riders and then drive, from doing that, drive the operational learnings that will let us scale this out to a much broader network when the new types of vehicles are ready in four years.
Brian Kelly: Got it. And similar to how Uber cars work, you don't actually own the helicopter, so you guys are teaming up with HeliFlite?
Eric Allison: Yep.
Brian Kelly: Talk about the actual helicopter experience. What type of helicopters are they, and how many people can fit in them?
Eric Allison: Our exclusive partner for this is HeliFlite. They are one of the top-rated helicopter operators around. They're ARG/US Platinum, Wingman Wyvern, and I think it's the other rating ... the top safety-rated operators, best in class, and so we're really excited to work with them as our partner and learn from them because they do amazing work, and what we're using with them for these routes are Bell 430s, and we have five seats available.
Brian Kelly: It's like the four in the back and then one passenger?
Eric Allison: No, it's a ...
Brian Kelly: Facing each other?
Eric Allison: ... lounge seating facing each other, so it's three and two, three facing two.
Brian Kelly: If you're at JFK, anyone with the Uber app will be able to see if it's available? Instead of having to Uber into the city, It'll just show you right then and there?
Eric Allison: Yeah, we anticipate most people going from JFK to the city will use the on-demand version because that's just the typical usage pattern.
Brian Kelly: Safety-wise, helicopters, especially with the single pilot, this summer in New York, we saw a single pilot have a heart attack and crashed into a building, which was frightening. Is Uber Copter going to be piloted by single helicopter or dual?
Eric Allison: HeliFlite, they only operate twin-engine, dual-pilot helicopters, yeah, so the Bell 430 is our twins with two pilots.
Brian Kelly: Nice.
Eric Allison: They also have the highest safety ratings in the industry, which is ARG/US Platinum, and Wingman Wyvern are the ratings that they carry. One of the other pieces that we think is really, really important is something called the safety management system, so this is something that's required of the Part 121, the big airlines. It's not actually required of the Part 135 or the charter operators.
Eric Allison: HeliFlite actually has a voluntary SMS that they've implemented, and so we are building out at Elevate for Uber a safety management system as well, and so we are working to learn from what HeliFlite has done that's really good with theirs and building out our own safety management system. That'll be the foundation for Uber Air. We think it's critical that, as we think toward the future, we build these scalable systems, build the discipline of collecting safety data, making sure we treat it properly and just building that culture within the team that takes those really, really seriously and takes the best practices from large-scale aviation and applies this to this new mode, so it's one of the fundamental things that we're building at Elevate.
Brian Kelly: Interesting. What would you say to someone who's never been on a helicopter, but says they're nervous about safety or ... What do you say to someone to encourage them to try it?
Eric Allison: This is one of the reasons why we're partnering with the best, and so HeliFlite is basically the best in terms of an operator, and so we're really excited to work with them. For someone who's never taken a helicopter before, it's a fun experience, and it's an ...
Brian Kelly: It's an amazing way to see New York City.
Eric Allison: ... amazing view, yeah. What's amazing is, as we develop this experience and truly building this end-to-end multimodal journey. An anecdote is when I, again on the testing run that I did, as I got off the helicopter at Sheltair at the JFK side, escorted down the flight line, I walked through the doors, one set of doors, never stopped walking, this next set of doors. As I hung a right after 10 feet, the car was pulling up exactly then. The car stopped. I opened the door, closed the door. I ended up going with four seconds of latency, and that's the experience that we're going for, and that's all done with the technology in the back end, and so that's the type of thing that we're trying to build is those experiences where it's just that seamless handoff from mode to mode, so it's like, every time you do that, you get that little ... I mean, I think it's fun when it just ... when it works, right? That's what we are building and have built for people to use every day potentially.
Brian Kelly: I have to ask -- Uber ratings, we're all obsessed with our own rating. Will you rate the helicopter driver? Will they have their own Uber rating and will pilots who slip below a certain level be kicked out of the program?
Eric Allison: Because we're partnering through HeliFlite, and HeliFlite actually has their pilots on the helicopters and operate everything.
Brian Kelly: They wouldn't care less what their rating they are.
Eric Allison: They are the FAA-certified operator, but you can rate the drivers on the first mile and last mile portion.
Brian Kelly: How do you be a good Uber Copter passenger? What are some tips, dos and don'ts?
Eric Allison: Do what the pilot tells you to do.
Brian Kelly: OK, that's a good first step.
Eric Allison: I'll add, too, listen to the safety briefing.
Brian Kelly: On helicopters, people are always so ... they want to ... Photos are amazing, but I've had friends where I've had to hit them. I'm like, "Stop it," as they're taking pictures in the line of sight of the pilot, because you don't realize it when you're in the front how much you can encroach on their territory.
Eric Allison: Aviation is a regulated industry, so there are rules. We really have tried to lean in to best practices. We're partnering with Signature in terms of how you actually operate efficiently on the heliport side, and so we really have taken this position that let's learn from the best, let's synthesize best practices because this is a ... It's a new thing. This isn't something that ... and we're just at the cusp of something that we think is going to be really great.
Brian Kelly: Uber as a company seeks to disrupt industries, whether it's the taxi industry ... It seems like, with the air mobility, you're not looking to shake up. You're looking to establish a new industry. Is that an over-simplistic view of this or is there some helicopter union that's mad about Uber Copters?
Eric Allison: That's the right way to look at it. Aviation is a highly regulated industry. It's maybe the most highly regulated industry by some accounts, and so you have to partner with the regulators right at the gate, so we've worked hard to build really good relationships with the FAA, which is the primary regulator, but then also to understand the regulations that apply to state and local level as well, so, largely, that would be on the infrastructure side, on the skyport side. The state and local regulators have a big role to play there, and so we have worked really hard to build good relationships around the regulatory issues because there's just no way around it. You have to do it.
Brian Kelly: This is unchartered territory, so does the FAA even have a set guideline of what Uber Elevate needs to do to be a big player? Can you do that before these vehicles are ready?
Eric Allison: Yeah, so that's a really good question. You have to operate under some set of rules, and so there are sets of both aircraft certification rules, piloting rules, operating rules that all kind of fit together into the overall regulatory system that we have. And so we're working with FAA and our vehicle partners to chart the right path through all of that so that we think that there's a good way or a helpful way to apply vehicle certification standards that then makes the piloting more clear, that then makes the operating rules more clear. And so we're helping, trying to help everyone in the ecosystem think of this as a system, not just as an isolated single-issue types of considerations, because the challenges come from the system perspective, and you don't want to make one choice that results in needing 150 exemptions from other rules just in order to take off the ground for the first time.
Brian Kelly: Uber, in search of growth, has been known to subsidize. Is that something with a pretty hefty price tag? Are there any offers out of the gate or do you do targeted offers in the app based on --
Eric Allison: Yeah, so we are just getting going on this, and so we are still understanding all the different price sensitivities, and all Rewards members will get 25% off on their first Uber Copter flight.
Brian Kelly: Are you looking at future routes?
Eric Allison: We really want to get this one right, and so we're really focused on that full multimodal end-to-end journey that we can give our riders a really great experience.
Brian Kelly: Just switching into the future of air mobility and Uber Eats via drones. What's going on with that?
Eric Allison: That's under my team, and it's an interesting thing that we found as an adjacency to the work that we're doing. So I look at the things necessary to bring Uber Air into the world and divide them into four pillars. You have to build out. You have to have electric aircraft. We're working with partners on that. You need the skyports. We have other partnerships. We're working on connected skyports. You have to have what we call aerial ride-sharing, which is what we're learning with Copter, how do you actually do these types of multimodal operations, and then you have to have an automation platform that you can manage the network of vehicles as it scales up. And we found that as we're building out that piece of it, the automation platform, there's other interesting things we can do with that technology that we're building, and the Uber Eats drones is one of those, and so we think that this is a really interesting way to add value to our Uber Eats network as well, and so --
Brian Kelly: Where have you tried this?
Eric Allison: We're part of a program with the FAA called the IPP. It's the Integration Pilot Program, and so it's limited to one kind of community that we're working with, which is San Diego. So actually, we're part of the San Diego team in the way that the FAA has divvied this program out.
Brian Kelly: It's such a good place to test drones, right?
Eric Allison: It's not a bad place to have to go on occasional basis, right? Yeah, that's where we're testing. We're really excited about that and making true progress. I mean, it's still early days, and we're learning a lot.
Brian Kelly: What is a skyport? I just can't help think Jetsons and like --
Eric Allison: You can't call them heliports when you're not flying helicopters, right?
Brian Kelly: Oh, so it's on the ground, so it's not like a ...
Eric Allison: Yeah. No, it's --
Brian Kelly: ... floating space --
Eric Allison: Fundamentally, I mean, it would be great if you could take off and land from everyone's driveway, but you can't, in the future, and so we think, fundamentally, there's going to have to be places to take off and land these types of vehicles. And so an infrastructure is expensive to put in, so you want to limit it. If we can weave our ground network with the right skyports in the right locations and use our knowledge of where people want to go, and we have a lot of data about movement, we can put the skyports or work with partners to put the skyports in the perfect spots and then --
Brian Kelly: Speaking of partners, I would imagine like Amazon would be heavily interested in doing the same thing. Is this something that you would team up with Amazon or is this --
Eric Allison: I mean, again, Elevate is taking a very partnership-first approach, so we are partnering with all different types of companies. That's not someone that we've partnered with at this point, but we talk to everyone though.
Brian Kelly: Uber is such a huge company with so many ... This is a single route. I know you're doing it for the learnings. How is this going to scale, or is it really just in prep for the 2023 and beyond?
Eric Allison: You've got to start somewhere, and we think that it's really, really important to start with a route that we can demonstrate the way we can take our network and take the demand on the ground side of our network and put it into there effectively and let us kind of build the muscles around doing real, truly multimodal aerial ride-sharing. And then I think there's a lot of interesting places it can go from there.
Brian Kelly: Let's think into the future now. In the next five years, beyond air transport, but like hyperloop, do you think that's actually going to change the way we get between cities and --
Eric Allison: I never bet against technology. From our perspective, we actually are big fans of all these different types of advanced technology because, I mean, you could easily imagine different types of multimodal skyports where you have hyperloops and electric cars and bikes and scooters and a skyport on top with electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. If you have the right technology back end, the right way to weave these things together, which is what Uber is building, it just makes it better for the rider.
Brian Kelly: Clearly, you've studied aviation in college, so you wanted to be in this industry. Was that ever since you were a little kid?
Eric Allison: I've loved airplanes since I was a little kid, yeah, airplanes, spaceships.
Brian Kelly: You yourself are a pilot?
Eric Allison: I'm not a pilot.
Brian Kelly: Oh, you're not a pilot. OK.
Eric Allison: No, I'm not a pilot. Yeah.
Brian Kelly: Do you want to be?
Eric Allison: No.
Brian Kelly: No?
Eric Allison: I want Uber Air to exist, so I don't have to be --
Brian Kelly: You don't have to [crosstalk 00:23:01]. Eric Allison, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Talking Points. It's always good to think about the future, and it's not easy to launch new modes of transportation especially in congested cities like New York, so congrats on your public launch of Uber Copter, and safe travels.
Eric Allison: Thank you very much.
Brian Kelly: That's it for this episode of Talking Points. I'm your host, Brian Kelly, and if you're in New York and happen to be downtown, load up your Uber app and see if you can take a chopper to JFK. Check it out. Open up your Uber app and look for Uber Copter.
Brian Kelly: Again, I'm your host, Brian Kelly, and this episode was produced by Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin. Special thanks to Christie Matsui, my legendary assistant, and if you've been enjoying Talking Points so far, thank you, and please leave us a good review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcast.