John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
The ride-hailing company’s plan to offer Manhattan-to-JFK helicopter shuttles overshadows the public-transit alternative that would help many more travelers.
There are three ways to get from Manhattan to the city’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. All of them are pretty bad.
First, there’s the subway: You can take the A or E out to eastern Queens, and then hop on the AirTrain. It’ll cost you $7.75, and take an hour, but delays are common. Then there’s commuter rail: Take the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) from Penn Station to the Jamaica terminal, then AirTrain it, which is $15.75 at rush hour, or $9.50 on weekends, and cuts the time down to about 35 minutes, plus the 15-minute AirTrain ride. Finally, you can take four wheels: A cab, private shuttle, or for-hire vehicle can cost up to $100 during surge pricing and take anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours, depending on the status of New York City’s record-high congestion.
The JFK-Manhattan connection is one of New York’s great transit flaws—a major city is unable to offer a one-seat ride from its airport to its central business district. That’s why many New Yorkers and tourists rely on cars rather than trains to get to JFK, making traffic worse and triggering a vicious cycle of mobility frustration.
Starting July 9, Uber users can take to the skies to get to the airport, with the ride-hailing giant introducing a weekday helicopter service between Lower Manhattan and JFK. With a paid Uber to the helipad, the trip, the company says, could take as little as 30 minutes (the helicopter part is just eight minutes of that). Like sky-rival Blade—that’s “the Uber for helicopters” that also goes to JFK—Uber says its users will be allowed to book five days in advance, and can fit up to five people with carry-on baggage. “Point to point multimodal journey planning and booking = no stress transport to and from JFK,” tweeted Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, this week.
Except, naturally, Uber Copter isn’t for most people, and in fact, caters to a very specific group of people. The average price will range from $200 to $225, and is only available to Platinum or Diamond Uber Rewards users. In other words: You have to spend between $1,250 and $3,750 on UberX rides in a six-month period to be able to take a $200 helicopter near Wall Street to what is presumably your private jet or first-class commercial seat.
Uber Copter is the company’s first leap into “aerial ridesharing.” Up until this point, the service has only been seen in a promotional manner—at CES, and in Bangkok, for example—but it’s part of the company’s larger ‘Uber Air’ initiative, which ultimately aims to bring small, electric VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircrafts to cities around the globe by 2023. “Imagine soaring above congested ground traffic. With Uber Air, this future is closer than you think,” the company boasts. Uber Copter, the company said, will eventually be rolled out to other cities.
The vehicles that will take to the skies of New York are not the sleek electric sky-taxis seen in the company’s CGI promotional film. Those do not exist. Instead, they’re conventional twin-engined gas-fueled choppers, the type that emit more CO2 emissions than cars do to cover the same distance and pound out 100 throbbing decibels of noise pollution in the process—a din that the World Health Organization has deemed a “leading environmental nuisance.” Blade relies on these commercial helicopters, too. One of them crashed into the Hudson River earlier this month. (Thankfully, no one was hurt.)
The pollution, noise, and crashiness of helicopter-based commuting helps explain why an earlier era of chopper travel in New York fizzled out in the 1970s. It seems particularly problematic to attempt reviving the idea now, a time when America’s largest city is facing a reckoning over the dangers of its petroleum-based ways. “I thought it was already obvious, but when apps promote private car and helicopter trips, cities get dirtier, noisier, more expensive, and worse for everyone,” Stephen Miller, the communications lead at the ride-planning app Transit, told me. “Multimodal transportation is about making it easy to connect sustainable, efficient, affordable options, not going from your chopper to your chauffeur.”
Yet the true tragedy of Uber Copter is that it overshadows concrete alternatives that transit planners have put forward for years to make the Midtown-to-JFK connection faster and cheaper for a much greater strata of riders. Take the Rockaway Beach Line, for example. Per a 2017 proposal by the Regional Plan Association (one of the five ideas it released at the time), this defunct commuter rail route could be reactivated, allowing the LIRR to go directly from Penn Station (and, soon, Grand Central) to JFK, bypassing the AirTrain.
It’s a big lift: The price tag for this project varies in the upper millions, and would require building two train terminals in the central airport area. But it would dramatically improve JFK access for an estimated 10,000 passengers per day, instead of just a handful of elite passengers. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which originally shelved the idea to build the AirTrain, is now conducting a feasibility study into the idea amidst growing calls to reactivate old routes, but has not yet released the results.
Until then, “no stress transport” to one of the world’s most important airports will only be reserved to those who can afford it.