Gotham Air CEO Tim Hayes thinks there’s one big problem with the helicopter industry: a misguided focus on the super rich. And the goal of his company is to break that ethos by making a helicopter ride to the airport as cheap as taking an Uber.
Hayes says while this idea might sound crazy to the average person, there is actually a rich tradition of affordable helicopter rides in the United States — it’s just that no one remembers them.
He relates the story of New York Airways, a helicopter airline that operated in the United States from 1949 until 1979.
“They flew regular helicopter flights between Manhattan and JFK on a constant loop, priced for the masses,” he says. But a few high profile accidents mixed with a recession put the company out of business in the late 70s. Since then, the “mid-range” market for helicopters has been nonexistent.
That’s where Gotham Air comes in.
Gotham Air operates like an Uber for helicopters. You whip out your phone and book an “on-demand” seat on a helicopter from Manhattan to any of the major airports around New York City, or further afield, to places like the Hamptons.
Hayes says he wants to have the price be comparable to an “Uber black car during peak time.” Right now, that means around $US200 to the airport, or $US100 during one of Gotham Air’s many introductory deals. But Hayes wants that price to eventually settle closer to $US100, and has a plan to dramatically drop the base price.
The main reason why Gotham Air and its competitors are on-demand services isn’t actually because people want an “Uber for helicopters.” In fact, in most instances, it would be much more convenient for people to know the exact schedule of departing flights. The problem is government regulations, which impose a much heavier burden on “scheduled” carriers.
But Gotham Air is going to take the plunge, aiming to become a traditional scheduled airline carrier by the first quarter of 2016. Hayes says this will allow volume to increase, with choppers running every 15 minutes on a loop, and bring the price way down.
“I want to find a fair, attractive price,” he says.
Because of the price point Gotham Air is going for, Hayes sees traditional ground transportation as his competition, not other helicopter companies. “Most helicopter companies cater to the super rich,” he says. “And most helicopters spend most of their time on the ground, waiting for that super wealthy person to call them.”
Hayes himself was introduced to the helicopter industry by those “super rich” — namely rock stars. He worked many years in the concert promoting business, as an agent, and even did private travel for bands like U2. He knows the excesses of luxury travel.
He tells one particular story about when he realised the prices in the helicopter business were completely insane. He was working with Duff McKagan, of Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver fame, and they were running out of time to finish a project. McKagan needed to leave Manhattan and catch a flight at Newark airport in New Jersey, so Hayes suggested they hire a chopper. With the extra hour or two, they were able to finish up, but when the bill came, it was $US1,700 — for a 7 minute flight. Hayes knew that price could be pushed much lower.
So if the super rich aren’t the target, who uses Gotham Air now?
There are two groups Gotham Air can clearly identify, Hayes says: “girls going to Miami and guys going to Vegas.” These posses of friends are flying somewhere to have a good time, and want to start it off immediately — in a helicopter. These are the people who are plastering their selfies all over Instagram, Hayes says.
But the majority of his clients, Hayes says, are business people who would be considered (by “Manhattan standards”) to be upper middle class.
And his want to open up helicopters beyond the 1% doesn’t feel empty. While some of Gotham Air’s competitors keep their prices hovering at near $US500, out of reach for nearly everyone, Hayes does seem to want to lower the price as much as possible. He’s not selling exclusivity. He’s peddling a giddy luxury that it’s sup rising you might be able to afford.
Of course, more volume is more money. And Gotham Air is also looking to expand, eyeing Tokyo, Dubai, and Los Angeles in particular.
But there’s a certain excitement in Haye’s voice when he tells a story about how Pan Am used to shuttle patrons from LAX to Disneyland via helicopter. And when he talks, it truly seems like he believes flying in a helicopter is just a little bit magical.