A Brief Comparison: How Helicopters Are Becoming Air Taxis
March 29, 2019
Imagine landing in Manila within just a few minutes in one of mankind’s marvelous technological inventions—the helicopter.
While airplanes are ideal for
long distance transport, helicopters are the logical alternative when it comes to urban air mobility. Helicopters are fast, efficient, and safe, perfect for those who can’t afford to waste critical business days stuck in the city’s notorious traffic jams. Helicopters can cut your driving or commute time significantly, allowing you to regain control of your time. But if helicopters are that good, why is it not a more popular mode of transport within and around the city? To understand that, we’ll need to dive deeper into the history of commercial helicopter transport as well as some of the differences between the past and current trends in the industry.
A brief history of helicopters for passenger air transport
While still commonly perceived as something for the wealthy, air mobility through helicopters has grown remarkably over the years. The ability to take off and land vertically on urban
infrastructure such as buildings or parking lots, hover in any direction, access isolated areas and remain stationary even while mid-air are some of the reasons why it has become a notable choice for different transportation needs.
Commercial use of helicopters started growing rapidly after World War II. It was used for military missions, police operations, medical evacuation, load transportation, sightseeing, news gathering, and eventually, passenger transportation.
Over 60 years ago, New York Airways (NYA) transitioned from being a mail and cargo carrier to becoming the world’s first helicopter airline to carry passengers between airports and New York City. The rise of commercial helicopter transport did not only occur in the United States. In Europe, Air Monaco, a prolific helicopter transport operator who started operations in 1976 continues to offer regular helicopter routes between Monaco and Nice till this day.
By the end of 2007, after 30 years in the business, the total number of passengers that have used their service reached 2.3 million.
While Air Monaco remains as a strong proof point of commercial possibilities in the helicopter industry, the growth of the industry has not just been limited to Air Monaco. There are now several helicopter booking services (e.g., Ascent, Voom, Blade) that enable passengers to skip the traffic and spend more of their valuable time on their business, passions and loved ones.
Below are the significant developments in the use and purpose of the helicopters through the years. See how it evolved from being a military air vehicle to an alternate mode of urban transportation.
Then and Now: Purpose of Helicopters
Then: The military first used helicopters during the Korean War, but it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that companies started using the aircraft for commercial purposes.
In 1942, Igor Sikorsky, presented a refined model of his VS-300, the XR-4, for the U.S. Army Corps. The U.S and British military bought dozens of the series, which were eventually used for amphibious and shipboard operations and rescue missions. Because Sikorsky developed the first helicopter upon which future designs were made, he was considered as the “father of helicopters”.
The XR-4 was later considered to be the world’s first helicopter that was mass produced.
Igor Sikorsky in the XR-4, the world’s first mass-produced helicopter. (USCG via Wikimedia Commons)
Now: Helicopters are still largely utilized in rescue missions and emergency services. But, its versatility proved to be valuable for a wide range of operations, such as medical transport and evacuation, news and media, firefighting, and search and rescue missions among many others.
Helicopters eventually evolved into commercial and business use - to help commuters get to places previously less accessible or in a faster, more efficient manner. An investment banker is reported to have used helicopters commercially even as early as the 1980s. Helicopter booking platforms and services that connect commuters and carriers for urban flights have now sprung up globally.
Then and Now: Safety & Comfort of Helicopters
Then: As previously mentioned, New York Airways was the first to offer helicopter services for civilian use instead of the usual military or industrial purposes during this time. Their safety record was on a
roll, until one of their helicopters crashed in 1963 and took the lives of all three people on board. The unfortunate incident was blamed on mechanical failure. This would be the first of many accidents to expose how lacking civil helicopter safety was at the time.
Additionally, New York Airway’s Midtown helipad was closed for good in 1977 when one of its helicopter’s landing gear failed while boarding on the Pan Am building, killing five people and injuring one in the process. It was determined that “metal fatigue” was the cause of the accident. They ceased their operations shortly after its final fatal disaster, which killed three and injured 13 people.
Now: Modern technologies
has and continue to improve the safety level of helicopter flight. For instance, the Airbus’ trademark Fenestron tail rotor, which provides additional protection for ground workers as well as for blade loss and foreign object debris. Moreover, the installation of new technologies like the Enhanced Ground Proximity and Warning System (EGPWS) in civil helicopters warns the pilot of any fixed, land-based hazards and mitigates risks when landing on helipads. There’s also the Wire Strike Protection System (WSPS) which helps avert disasters through cutting wires in case of collision. Many (not all) civil helicopter are now equipped with the system and fly with a higher level of precaution.
Then and Now: Convenience & Accessibility
Then: Availing a helicopter has always been a tedious task. Booking a helicopter flight means looking for charter services and going through a tedious process of application, which could take hours or even days. There was no internet at the time, so transactions were done face-to-face. Even up until the early 2000s, chartering a helicopter would often entail a lengthy email thread and a high volume of phone calls.
Now: The rise of the internet and innovative connectivity technologies have paved the way for helicopter booking platforms. To book a ride, passengers can now reserve their seats and book a ride online on platforms such as Ascent or via voice call, all in a matter of seconds. Ascent also enables the full mobility journey by offering first and last-mile transportation, which includes pick-up services to and from your desired location.
Then and Now: Affordability
Then: Helicopters weren’t as accessible and affordable before as they are now. In the past, only top business owners, executives, and luxury travelers could afford helicopter services. These helicopters have conventionally been sold only as a charter - this means leasing the full helicopter, by the hour. Helicopter charter prices also do not normally include waiting time and landing fees.
Now: Helicopter ride-sharing platforms like Ascent, offer flights for as low as ₱6,900 (excluding VAT) per person between and around major hubs of activities like the airport or central business districts. This is done through enabling commuters to purchase helicopter rides by the seat and by the route, drastically reducing the cost of commute via helicopters.