The Urban Helicopter Dream Is Rising Again

A thousand-plus feet above Silicon Valley, I watched the quilt of tech campuses, cul-de-sacs, and forest groves below unfurl. The pilot of the helicopter that was shuttling me the 30 miles from Palo Alto to San Francisco crackled in via intercom. He expected business to be booming soon. “That’s why,” he said, pointing downwards at the rush-hour traffic lurching below.

If you’ve got an important meeting to make and a few hundred buck to burn, Voom, the Bay Area’s new passenger helicopter service, wants to be your new commuting option. The company began offering regularly scheduled flights from five airports around the region in September, joining a handful of other on-demand chopper providers running in other U.S. cities, such as Uber Copter and Blade. Voom’s slogan: “Helicopter flights for everyone.”

Hey, I thought: That’s me!

So last week, after logging an interview in Palo Alto, I tried liberating my body from the ostensibly time-sucking terrestrial alternatives of Caltrain or Lyft, opting to return to San Francisco via Voom instead. Vaulting that traffic-clogged distance in a mere 20 minutes did feel like cheating physics. But the experience also demonstrated that helicopter commuting is laden with some significant caveats—not just the nearly two hours of connections that the commute required, but the many mobility challenges that aerial urban transit faces and stands to worsen.

Indeed, I couldn’t even have anticipated some of the unique first- and last-mile gaps I encountered. My journey began with a four-mile Lyft ride to Palo Alto Municipal, a small civilian aviation field, for my 5 p.m. flight to San Francisco International. Reasonably, the driver dropped me off at a building nearest the welcome sign for PAO. But this turned out to be administrative offices, and you’re not allowed to cross the tarmac on foot. Fortunately, a friendly airport accountant gave me a golf-cart ride to the passenger terminal near where the choppers land.

Total time to the helipad: 30 minutes.

Voom is no fly-by-night startup: It’s a subsidiary of the French aviation giant Airbus. Since 2017, it has provided passenger service in São Paolo and Mexico City—two sprawling, traffic-choked megacities that feature many helipads and vastly unequal social strata. The Bay Area lacks the former, but it does have plenty of the latter. In September, Voom kicked off its first scheduled flights in the U.S. between San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Palo Alto, and Napa County airports. One-way trips run between $215 to $285.

That might sound like a lot, even on a Bay Area salary (it’s roughly four percent of the monthly median individual income in San Francisco). But it’s a lot less than the $1,000 one would normally pay to charter a traditional helicopter over the same distance, according to Voom CEO Clément Monnet, who joined my ride despite my attempts to fly undercover. “Already, we’ve made the air more accessible to a greater audience,” he said. “That’s what motivates us: to improve people’s lives by giving them access to the air.”

I paid $220 for my short hop, and enjoyed every exhilarating moment. The bug-eyed windows of the five-seat Bell helicopter offered impressive vistas of the supple hills and blue coastline of the San Francisco peninsula. But landing at the executive airstrip at SFO was not the end of my journey. That VIP section has no pedestrian or transit connections to the rest of the airport, or the nearest BART station. Voom offers connecting Lyft rides to the airport terminal of your choice, if you’re flying. But I was just trying to get home, and Voom had no built-in mobility resources for me. Monnet explained that Voom was working on this, and kindly ordered me a special Lyft, which took 25 minutes to arrive and shuttle me to BART. Another 35 minutes later, I was back in the heart of San Francisco.

Total trip time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. That was considerably longer either than driving the same distance (50 to 90 minutes in traffic) or taking a combination of Caltrain and BART (1 hour, 20 minutes).

It’s $220 for 20 minutes, but you can’t beat the view. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

In fairness, mine was not a typical Voom commute. So far, said Monnet, most passengers have been traveling either from San Jose to SFO to catch a flight, or from Oakland to San Jose to get to professional obligations around Silicon Valley. The SFO-bound trips are consistent with what Voom has seen in Brazil and Mexico, Monnet explained, where 70 percent of their trips are from downtown to airport helipads.

And the second commute profile makes some level of sense, since a one-way drive or transit trip between the East Bay and Silicon Valley is a minimum of 90 minutes. “There are really no great alternatives,” said Monnet. But there are a number of well-paid professionals who’ve bought homes in the East Bay, and some might be willing to splurge to get to a crucial meeting, even if they still have to get to Oakland International first.

Long term, Monnet said, Voom’s mission is to help connect a growing class of super-commuters across ever-greater distances. Eventually, Voom plans to use electric, autonomous helicopters with larger passenger capacity, which he believes will push down costs. Mass helicopter travel should “help reshape the way cities being built,” he later wrote via email, pointing to the downsides of urban density—traffic, pollution, rising cost of living, and also, “inequalities.”

“By allowing people to move through the air,” Monnet continued, “we can have a better distribution of people across urban centers, make the suburbs and countryside great places to live without being disconnected from the center of activity.”

This promise might sound familiar: It’s been fueling flying-car promoters and aerial-taxi entrepreneurs since the dawn of commercial aviation. San Francisco had passenger helicopter service back in 1961. Carrying 62 flights a day between airports and helipads around the Bay Area, a company called the San Francisco and Oakland Helicopter Airlines served upwards of 10,000 travelers per month in its first year of service.

These were not the only choppers transporting the urban public in the 1960s and ’70s. As urban renewal hit the space age, all sorts of futuristic ideas about city living took hold, from monorails to modular housing. Boosted by a $50 million federal subsidy, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and others tested whirlybirds-for-all. NASA commissioned studies predicting that city-choppers would thrive. In one such white paper, Duke University civil engineers stated that the increase in average trip distances in sprawling, car-based urban areas “improves the time savings potential of the helicopter and eventually should lead to a growth of demand.” Compared to the cost of building high-speed commuter rail systems, they continued, helicopters would actually be a more economical bet “well into the 21st century.”

But those helicopter dreams did not take flight. Most urban VTOL services, including in the Bay Area, were out of business by the 1980s, for the reasons you might expect: Helicopters are noisy, dangerous, and inefficient; after government subsidies ran out, they became prohibitively costly to operate. And finding adequate landing space in growing cities was a constant battle. More broadly, even an expensive subway or rail line would be able to move many, many more multiples of passengers than a fleet of helicopters.

But what’s past is present. Only now, what makes the idea of “mass” helicopter service so startlingly out-of-step in 2019 isn’t just that it’s an old idea that already failed once. As transportation becomes North America’s top source of carbon emissions on a rapidly warming planet, our hopes for shrinking that footprint point to denser living, shorter commutes, and modes that can move loads of people at once. Heavily polluting flying sedans that promise to supercharge urban sprawl are just about the last mobility fix the planet needs. My Voom pilot said that our 20-minute, 30-mile trip burned about 10 gallons of aviation fuel. (And that’s not including the Lyft rides and the golf cart.)

Yet Voom isn’t the only one chopping around the Bay. Blade also provides heli-flights around the region, as well as in L.A., the Hamptons (where vacationers are none too pleased about the noise), and New York City. Uber also recently began running copters from Manhattan to JFK International. “The pilot is designed to generate learnings for a future all-electric Uber Air ride-sharing network,” the company wrote in a much-disparaged tweet last week.

Should such a carbon-intensive mode serve as a prelude to still-unproven greener mobility? Airbus has successfully demonstrated an unmanned prototype for an all-electric, autonomous aircraft (“eVTOL”) known as the City Airbus, Monnet told me. But even if that technology one day arrives for commercial use, imagine how long it will take before regulators and the public accept helicopters as safe and non-disruptive. Outside of an emergency, helicopters aren’t even allowed to land within San Francisco. Any new transportation mode operating in the city must conform to certain public policy objectives, such as improving social equity and environmental sustainability, according to Sarah Jones, the planning director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “I don’t see helicopters checking that box,” she said. “They’re not fitting into the transportation landscape in a big way.”

Still, some U.S. cities are more eager to see where VTOL can take them, including heavily helipadded L.A., where the mayor has promised Uber Copters by 2020. And Monnet believes that the time will come when the public at large embraces taxis in the sky. “It’s like trains: People didn’t like them at first,” he said. “I’m convinced it can be accepted if we show its value, by allowing you to move faster.”

But unless you’re VIP enough to flit from rooftop to rooftop, or have a chauffeur waiting for airport pick-up, it’s hard to see how even the basic time-saving advantage of aerial urban travel can be true, given the many built-in disadvantages. At this point, urban helicopter transport is costlier, more time-consuming, and far more heavily polluting than its mode competitors. By design, it is totally disconnected from the urban fabric—which is probably what makes it so appealing for elites, and so useless for everyone else.

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