We tried Uber's new helicopter service from Manhattan to JFK
Uber has gained notoriety as the go-to ride-hailing app for many travelers. While it's known for cars, Uber's added a number of other modes of transit in recent years, like electric bikes and scooters.
It's also launched service with helicopters and boats, flying from New York City to the Hamptons in the summer, or over the gridlock traffic of Mumbai. On Thursday, Uber launched its first permanent air transit route, opening to the public weekday flights between downtown Manhattan's Wall Street Heliport and New York JFK airport.
Uber Copter has actually been operating since July, but rides were only available to upper-tier Uber Rewards members with Diamond or Platinum status. Now that the pilot period is over, the service is open to anyone with the app.
What makes this significant is that the hordes of people who fly through JFK might not even know about other helicopter transit services like BLADE. But now, whenever anyone opens their Uber app and is traveling between lower Manhattan and New York’s busiest airport, they’ll start to see the option to take a helicopter to or from JFK.
Uber Copter is its first large-scale deployment of the ride-hailing giant's Uber Air program, which one day hopes to bring eVTOLs — or more simply, flying cars — to a city near you.
However, your Uber Copter experience doesn't just include the flight itself, but is composed of an entire multi-modal journey involving Uber cars on both ends of the trip. Uber's intent is to provide an end-to-end experience that gets you from the airport terminal, onto a helicopter and to your doorstep with just a click.
I was able to take the entire experience for a test run on Wednesday, the day before it opened to the public. Here's how it went.
Right now Uber Copter is only available Monday through Friday during the afternoon rush (~2 p.m. to 6 p.m. with exact timing based on demand), so I booked a flight on Monday for Wednesday afternoon, just as rush hour traffic was starting to hit. You can book Uber Copter flights up to five days in advance. Uber provided TPG and other members of the press credits to use for the journey, however I went through the same booking process as any other person would. My booking and ride experience should be similar to what any other member of the public would see.
Right now, Uber says a one-way trip for one person costs between $200 and $225, with pricing fluctuating based on demand. My flight cost $216, but that included my UberX ride to the Wall Street heliport, the helicopter flight to JFK's private aviation terminal and the Uber to JFK's Terminal 5. Uber's also told TPG that you can save 25% off your first Uber Copter flight by using the promo code FIRSTCOPTER — you'll just need to make sure you're an Uber Rewards member.
The booking experience was pretty seamless and took less than a minute to complete. It clearly displayed the details of each part of my journey, from when the first UberX would arrive to when the helicopter would depart. It's also important to note that you'll only be able to order an Uber Copter if you're departing from lower Manhattan below Houston Street. Uber explained that it if you're outside of this area, it likely wouldn't provide much time savings.
Come Wednesday, I departed from downtown Manhattan, right near City Hall. At 3:12pm I received a notification from Uber that my ride had been dispatched and would arrive at my location in 4 minutes. I had planned to be picked up at 3:15 so this was basically right on time.
A driver in a Toyota Camry, a New York Uber staple, picked me up at 3:18 — he said he hit some traffic — and got me to the heliport at 3:30.
An Uber employee greeted me outside the heliport and escorted me inside, where she handed me off to Uber check-in agents. They took me inside a small waiting area, which is actually shared with competitor BLADE.
The lounge is quite small and unfortunately you won't be given amenities like the free rosé that BLADE offers. However, Uber wants it that way, as it's trying to minimize downtime as much as possible, and that it did. We probably spent no more than four minutes in the lounge. The Uber agents quickly got us checked in, gave us our boarding passes and showed us a safety video. A sleek display in the corner of the room showed details of the flight.
To help keep the costs of the ride down Uber is pooling helicopter passengers together, so you're likely not going to get a chopper to yourself. Its technology makes sure that you all arrive at the heliport within a few minutes of each other to minimize time on the ground.
The animated safety video, which was also available in the app to watch, felt like a safety video an airline would play.
(Image courtesy of Uber)
After our boarding passes were scanned, the helicopter pilot and heliport personnel escorted us out to the helipad, which is located at the mouth of New York City's East River.
Similar to how Uber drivers are not actually employed by Uber, but work as independent contractors, Uber's contracted with Heliflite to operate its flights. It's essentially labeling Heliflite's staff and choppers as Uber's own. In fact, there was a big Uber logo emblazoned on the side of the Bell 430 helicopter.
Once inside the chopper, I noticed the Uber seatcovers with seat numbers, another way Uber's trying to brand this as its own.
The Bell 430 is more spacious than other helicopters I've been in, and even provided some room to stretch out our legs. It's classified as an "executive" helicopter, meaning it's soundproofed, more spacious and a bit more comfortable than most smaller copters.
As we took off another customized safety announcement played and after a few minutes cruising over Brooklyn and Queens, we were already approaching JFK. Our flight lasted just about eight minutes.
The approach into JFK was one of my favorite parts of the flight, with some pretty spectacular views of the airport, Jamaica Bay and a variety of commercial and private aircraft.
We landed at JFK's private aviation terminal, operated by Sheltair, which also runs a number of FBOs — "fixed base operators," basically the company running the facilities at a private airfield — around the country. We were quickly escorted off the helicopter, through the terminal and onto the curbside pickup where some of my fellow passengers already had their Ubers waiting for them, ready to take them to their terminals.
My Uber app notified me right as I was getting off the chopper that my driver was just a few minutes away.
In total, the door-to-door time from the time I got in the first UberX at New York's City Hall to the TWA Hotel (which is right next to JFK's Terminal 5) was 43 minutes.
My ride back to my apartment in Battery Park City, on the southern tip of Manhattan, was even more seamless. The Uber arrived exactly when it was supposed to at the TWA Hotel and quickly shuttled me back to Sheltair. After about six minutes in the lounge, we were brought back outside and to the helicopter, with some fantastic AvGeek views of an Air China Boeing 777F cargo plane. About two minutes before the helicopter landed in Manhattan, I received a push notification that my UberX was arriving. By the time I got curbside, the Uber was already waiting for me and I was able to hop right in.
Unfortunately we hit some brutal traffic on the way from the heliport to Battery Park, making the total return-trip time 47 minutes door-to-door.
Overall I was quite impressed with the Uber Copter experience, especially the multi-modal aspect. Being able to order the entire end-to-end journey with the click of a button, and then seeing how every aspect is laid out, is what sets Uber Copter apart from its competitors.
My Apple Maps estimated that a car ride would have taken about an hour and 15 minutes during the traffic that day, however I've been in rush hour rides rides between Manhattan and JFK that have taken over two hours.
I also compared pricing on the same routes for the return journey. A regular Lyft ride was going for about $90 and an UberX ride for $108. Basically I was paying $100 to save about 30 minutes in travel time. If you're budget conscious you'll also want to consider taking a yellow cab (which offers flat fares between JFK and Manhattan) or public transit, both of which are significantly cheaper.
Uber is hoping to use this route as more of a testing ground for its future Uber Elevate program, and likely won't aggressively expand Uber Copter. Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, told TPG the company is looking at other potential Copter routes but wouldn't give any specifics on when and where they would be. Uber is hoping to refine the backend technology that pieces together the multi-modal journey and works on pooling riders together. Uber Copter really just seems to be a way to usher in the Uber Air program.
Uber plans on launching its first Uber Air eVTOL flights in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne in 2023 and hopes to demonstrate the first public flight tests for the new vehicles by the end of next year. Allison told TPG in June that he believes flying in eVTOLs could eventually be cheaper than an UberX.
Allison also told TPG that while you can't currently earn Uber Rewards points for the helicopter portion of the journey (you'll still earn points on the two UberX rides), Uber is working on adding that as another feature of the Uber Rewards ecosystem that will soon be eligible for points earning.
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All pictures by the author except where indicated.