Helicopter rides are fun and fast; and ridesharing apps are booming. These are the core ideas behind Gotham Air, a helicopter rideshare service that promises to get you from helipad to airport in six minutes. Do you need it? Definitely not. Is it amazing? We tried it — and yes, it absolutely is.
Gotham Air officially launches today in New York City, with the website and mobile site open for bookings starting this afternoon. The app, an exact mirror of the mobile site, launches on Android and iOS in the coming days, though the first 2,500 people who signed up for the beta release should see an invite to download sometime today. As for the service itself, the main draw (other than ohmygod helicopter) is price: a typical flight is $219 per person (far less than the cost of chartering an entire helicopter yourself, which can easily hit upwards of $1,000).
Still, does anyone actually need this? No—almost certainly not. But after taking a flight for ourselves, we can definitely see why people might want it.
The "Uber for" prefix has become painfully prevalent in startup-land, but there are some key differences here. The most important being that you're not just hopping into some stranger's getup and praying for the best. You're hopping into an FAA-certified stranger's professional helicopter charter—Helicopter Flight Services' charters, to be exact. Though while the choppers and pilots have already been HFS-approved, they're being branded for Gotham Air-use, with the app and site acting as the middleman to connect fliers to the constantly on-call fleet.
Or at least for now, mostly on-call. Gotham Air's CEO, Tim Hayes, assured us that while the helicopters will only be running from 8am to 8pm at launch time, the company is hopping to hit 6am to 10pm in phase two and, eventually, 24 hours a day. At launch, the only two destinations are JFK and Newark airports, but pending the public's response, that could very well expand in the months to came. But how's it all work? As absurd as it might seem to book a helicopter less than an hour in advance, that's the hope.
Presumably, you just hop onto the website or app, look for an available trip, and book. The catch here is that at least three other people will have to book the same trip to make it a go (the helicopters will travel with at least four and up to six passengers), which is why, even though you can book that hour, there will be plenty of "incentives" to book in advance.
As Hayes explained to Gizmodo, "The goal is, after the first month, for there to be green [or available] flights every hour. So you can see, ok, this flight is green, it's confirmed, there are still two available seats left, and you could jump on it literally ten minutes before." Alternatively, a blue-colored flight will mean seats are available but more people are still needed to book before it's a sure bet. Once you are confirmed, it really does take mere minutes to walk from the sidewalk to your helicopter door. And should the helicopters be grounded due to weather, Gotham Air has a Tesla S fleet on call, ready to pick you up at your (Manhattan-only) apartment in the chopper's stead.
The whole process is astoundingly easy, assuming you and your (up to) 25 pounds of luggage (or more for a $39 add-on) are within walking distance of the heliport in downtown Manhattan. Which, if you're one of the frequently traveling businessmen the service is aimed at, there's a fairly decent chance you are. Otherwise, you're going to need to make it downtown on your own. And honestly, at that point, you might as well just take your own ass to the airport.
This isn't the first airborne Uber-esque idea to try and poach the restlessly wealthy, though. A little over a year ago, there was Blackjet, the Jay-Z- and Ashton Kutcher-backed iteration that never quite made it past marketing. And all the way back in 2004 there was something called US Helicopter, which more or less seemed to operate identically to how Gotham Air presents itself. It had a solid five years before funds dried up, forcing US Helicopter to shutter its choppers for good.
So why will Gotham Air succeed where others have (spectacularly) failed? Eh, it probably won't—nothing like this ever really does. There's a a color-coded, easy-to-use web site, so that's nice, I guess. The app should be hitting in a matter of days. But none of that changes the fact that, for most people, this is a novel idea that will never really be practical. This isn't for most people, though.
If the big VIP lettering on the doors of the lounge waiting for you at the airport didn't tip you off, the hors d'oeuvres and cocktails waiting for you inside probably will. This is the rideshare app of the upper echelons. The ones that might just take a helicopter to the airport anyway, cost be damned. Because when you don't have much more than a garment bag, it really is a tempting prospect. Especially when you consider the fact that you get to ride in a goddamned helicopter.
Our society is corrupt, what extravagance, what excess, blah blah, yes, but none of that changes the fact that this thing is fun as hell. You're delicately handed BOSE noise-canceling headphones, which you can adjust to your comfort. Floor-to-ceiling windows surround you. And you're left to sit back and enjoy incredible views of New York City, making six minutes seem almost cruelly quick. If you have the money to burn, you're probably going to burn it anyway, so sure, why not take a helicopter to the airport. I'd fly one to work every day if I could.
For the rest of us, the $99 introductory price is probably your best bet (and technically cheaper than Uber's comparable black car service). It's only offered at certain times throughout the week, and you only get to make use of it once, but for not too much more than you'd pay for a cab, you get a genuinely delightful experience. A positively absurd one, but a delightful one nonetheless.
Who knows, maybe one day, all the Ubercopters and the Uberjets and the drones and hovercrafts will finally to start to catch on, and we'll enter an age of complete and utter chaos in the skies above. An age we'll have to mostly imagine once we inevitably block out the sun. But hey, at least there's hors d'oeuvres.
Photographs by Nick Stango