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Monday, February 9, 2015

Is Gotham Air on to Something?

By Randy Jones

As we were going to press with this issue, I happened to notice two different stories in the mainstream media, both about new startup companies offering helicopter shuttle services. One story was from the Jan. 20 edition of the New York Post, and you can access it from our website at Why take a taxi to the airport when you can take a helicopter? The other was posted the very next day on the Wall Street Journal site from one of their bloggers and you can access it directly from our website as well at What Traffic Jam? Welcome to Beijing’s $10,000 Air Cab.

Other than the surprising glut of generally positive coverage of helicopter operations in back-to-back days by two top-tier media organizations, and of course, the annoying use of the word “chopper” by both writers, the other thing that really caught my eye was how wildly divergent the two companies’ pricing models seem to be. One operates the Bell 407 and seems to be offering a per-person rate of around $500 to get from one New York area airport to another, while the other is flying the Bell 429 and seems to be utilizing a flat rate for the use of the aircraft and up to seven passengers for the equivalent of $9,649 for their core shuttle route. But the point here is not the vast out-of-pocket difference – when you do the math factoring in the actual length of the trips and all the other key variables, the near-$10,000 rate in Beijing may well work out to be the better deal … assuming, of course, you happen to be traveling with at least six of your closest and most well-heeled friends.

And therein is the real question I pose here to you, dear readers. Which pricing model is more likely to work out in the long run?

To be clear, though the titles of the stories might lead you to believe that these will be similar operations in New York and Beijing, the target markets are very different. Gotham Air, the New York startup, is attempting to bring helicopter shuttle service down to the level of, if not the common man, certainly the common mid-to-upper-level business executive. The Beijing startup is the China World Summit Wing Hotel, which is apparently working in partnership with Reignwood Star General Aviation, Ltd. to offer the shuttle service to their guests – a time-tested (if not entirely proven) model of offering a premium service to a premium audience at a premium price. Nothing wrong with that, either.

But the holy grail of our industry, for as long as I can remember, has been to try to get rotorcraft accepted as an integral cog within our general transportation infrastructure. And now with roughly 50 years of civil and commercial helicopter operations under our belt, we seem to be going the opposite direction. We have gone from the old Popular Mechanics promise of a helicopter in every garage, to where we are widely perceived today as either a realistic travel option for only the rich and famous, or a very expensive tool that accomplishes about eight to 10 specific missions more effectively than anything else currently available, if you can get the customers to pay you enough money to do so.

To make matters worse, we now have a new technology looming heavily on our horizon in the form of unmanned aircraft that directly threatens the financial model of helicopter operations in at least half of those specific missions.

So, developing more People-Moving operations would seem to me to be a very important and worthy goal for us all, as an industry. Finding that sweet-spot in our pricing models that will attract more of the business traveling public is every bit as essential as continuing our push toward safer aircraft and safer operations. Developing far more efficient aircraft and power-plants wouldn’t hurt either. But for all our sake, I hope Tim Hayes, the man behind Gotham Air is on to something, here.

What do you think?

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