John Hollister is sick of two things: being asked if that’s his real name and the traffic getting to John F. Kennedy International Airport. As a consultant, Hollister travels often for work and says he racks up some $3,700 a month in Uber fares just for airport trips alone. Which is why, on one cool and bright October Friday, Hollister flew to JFK in a Blade helicopter.
Blade has been called a “flying taxi startup,” but in reality, its approach is much more simple than the perpetually vapourware flying cars: using your smartphone or their website, for about $300, anyone can fly from their Manhattan helipads to JFK (or vice versa) in about six minutes.
Considering a cab to JFK from Manhattan is a flat $100 fare, will likely take about an hour or so if you’re lucky, and public transportation options can take even longer while being a pain with luggage, the appeal to a certain type of person who values their time at $300 an hour is obvious. In Manhattan, there are many, many people who can treat that the same way the rest of us might treat a $40 Uber ride home from a bar.
And the view, as I found out while sitting to Hollister’s right, is better than the one from the Van Wyck. (Full Disclosure: Blade comped my round-trip ride for this story, to demonstrate how its service works, as it’s done with other media outlets lately. I walked back to the office afterward.)
Hollister, seated with his legs crossed while taking cell phone photos out the window (I mean, I was too, as demonstrated above), said he has used Blade before to get to the Hamptons, as one does. But he’s never used it for an airport run until today to catch his flight to Los Angeles.
As we circled lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, skirted downtown Brooklyn, traversed Prospect Park, sauntered over the gridlock on the Belt Parkway, and touched down on the helipad tarmac at JFK right on time, Hollister suspected his Uber expenditures might go down in the future. Good news for Blade; asked if he would be taking a helicopter to the airport from now on, he replied, “Oh, 100 per cent.”
The app-based helicopter service is not just Blade’s domain, and it’s hardly limited to New York. There are currently three companies offering app-based helicopter rides: Uber Copter offering those Manhattan-to-JFK airport rides from a different helipad; Blade with flights in the Northeast, Los Angeles and San Francisco; and most recently Voom, an affiliate of the aircraft manufacturer Airbus with helipads in São Paulo, Mexico City and now San Francisco.
One thing these cities all have in common: infuriating traffic and lots of well-off people willing to pay to avoid it.
As for the ride, it’s faultless, at least from a passenger perspective. It is fast. It is time-efficient. On days like these, it is gorgeous. But I didn’t spend the ride thinking about the view. All I could think about was how much fuel we were burning, about how we have replaced one inefficient form of transportation with another, even less efficient form. And that posed a set of problems because no matter how I wrapped my head around it, I couldn’t find a clear case to make when only grading it on emissions, which, for me, has become a key consideration in how I decide to get around.
While concerns about safety and noise have already gotten plenty of attention, as well as a larger existential question about what kind of a society we have when the richest of us can simply buy their way out of any and all inconveniences, the one issue that seems to be going largely unaddressed are the environmental concerns of more helicopter trips at a time when we, as a society, need to be drastically reducing emissions from transportation, not increasing them.
Everyone has a role to play in reducing their carbon footprint, but the wealthiest have a disproportionate responsibility because wealth is one of the strongest predictors of emissions. Almost as a rule, rich people have a larger carbon footprint than poor people, and rich countries have a larger carbon footprint than poor countries. Therefore, it is the richest of us who must make the biggest change in order to reduce global emissions.
How this could work while making “urban air mobility” accessible to even more people remains to be seen.
Transportation currently accounts for about a third of U.S. emissions.
The plan to reduce emissions from how people get around (at least from current presidential candidates, industry execs, and their regulators) has been, in a nutshell, to electrify everything while transitioning the grid to renewable energy. Unfortunately, more helicopters, while a tiny fraction of our overall transportation emissions picture, are a step in the wrong direction because helicopters are very fuel-inefficient.
Helicopters are a lot like cars in that different models use different amounts of fuel, but even the most efficient helicopter still compares poorly to a gas-guzzling SUV.
Will Heyburn, head of corporate development and business processes for Blade, told me that they think about efficiency and fuel economy as a core part of their business. As such, they contract with helicopter providers that use the Bell 407, which burns 163l per hour of flight time, which is about as good as you’re going to get from a helicopter. That comes out to about three gallons of fuel per airport run, Heyburn said.
Others fare much worse. Uber Copter is Uber’s foray into the Manhattan-to-JFK airport business in an attempt to keep people like Hollister in their ecosystem. But they use the Bell 430 which, although more spacious than the Bell 407, burns fuel at 330 litres per hour, or more than double the rate of the 407.
Voom did not disclose what model helicopters they use, but CityLab reporter Laura Bliss tweeted that her Voom pilot said their 15-minute trip burned 38L of fuel, indicating they either use a Bell 407 or something similar.
Voom pilot told me that our 30 mile, 15 minute helicopter trip burned 10 gallons of fuel. An entire tank of gas for a small car is 12. So, generating learnings, and lots and lots of greenhouse gas! https://t.co/ambfJoKtUs
— Laura Bliss (@mslaurabliss) October 4, 2019
If it was as simple as all these people taking Ubers or taxis to the airport now using helicopters, then indeed we would have a big environmental problem on our hands. But, as with most things environmental, it’s not that simple.
As far as chopper services go, Heyburn says Blade runs a lean operation, at least for the airport trips. Chartered helicopters chill on helipads in New Jersey or upstate New York waiting for their next gig, fly the dozens of miles to the city, make their run, then return to base.
None of these “urban air mobility” upstarts own and operate their own helicopters. They hire existing charters; the one I flew in is operated by Helicopter Express LLC out of New Jersey. But Heyburn is adamant that their operation is much more efficient, because the chopper simply shuttles back and forth between the airport and Manhattan all day, alleviating the deadhead miles back to base other charter services still require — no runs to Jersey or upstate here.
Plus, most charters tend to serve a single individual, whereas Blade, Uber Copter and Voom all tout the fact that they pool rides. Turns out, rich people are more willing to share helicopter rides than they are cabs or Ubers.
None of the companies would disclose how many passengers on average are in the helicopters for each trip. But Heyburn said that their business model is “economically sustainable” with an average of 2.5 passengers per airport trip and that their business is “profitable in core markets” such as New York. (Blade was the only of the three companies willing to be interviewed by Gizmodo; after I reached out to them about the environmental impact of their business, Heyburn invited me on an upcoming flight in addition to answering questions. Voom and Uber both declined to make anyone from the company available for an interview.)
In that vein, Heyburn contended that if all five passengers in a full Blade helicopter took their own Uber Black SUVs to the airport instead, the total emissions would be pretty close to the helicopter trip. This may well be true, said Costa Samaras, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, but there haven’t been any studies comparing urban helicopter emissions with other alternatives. Further, he cautioned against taking the multi-SUV trip comparison as a definitive counterexample.
“Petroleum-powered, rotary-winged flight is very energy-intensive,” Samaras said. “So, like, if all of them can ride individually in a Suburban and they’re all leaving at the same time, then maybe they can ride in one Suburban?”
Samaras added that he was aware of the social hurdle of getting some people to share rides — as Uber and Lyft’s own struggles with their pooled rides demonstrate — but said, from an environmental perspective, “all that is going in the wrong direction. And so whether or not [helicopter flights are] the same as 12 Suburbans or six Suburbans or 80 Suburbans, the sign is wrong.”
Samaras and the helicopter ride providers are all on the same page with how to turn that minus into a plus: electric flight, eventually.
All agree that, to some degree, these helicopter flights are merely precursors to electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, otherwise known as eVTOLs. The goal, they say, is to gain a foothold in the market using petroleum-fuelled helicopters, understand the business better, then shift and scale using eVTOLs.
Not only are eVTOLs electric-powered, but they’re far more efficient than their petroleum counterparts. Sometimes referred to as “flying cars” — for, as far as I can tell, no reason other than people want something to be called flying cars by now, dammit — they are fixed-wing aircraft that use smaller rotors to achieve liftoff.
Like aeroplanes, the fixed-wing design means the most intense energy usage occurs at takeoff.
eVTOLs would be relatively efficient during cruising, so from an energy usage perspective, the longer the flight, the more efficient it would be compared to ground alternatives. A recent study in Nature by Ford and the University of Michigan researchers found that eVTOLs would for a 100-kilometre journey reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent versus gas-powered cars. But, emissions would be 28 per cent higher than an electric car over that distance. Should an eVTOL have three people inside, it could potentially reduce emissions by a small margin even versus electric cars.
For these reasons, there are some differences in how these companies envision that transition occurring. Heyburn, for example, sees a gradual shift over the course of perhaps a decade from helicopters to eVTOLs as the technology matures.
In the meantime, he thinks Blade will still need choppers on standby, because, at JFK, the tower sometimes forces the helicopter to hover a few dozen feet over the helipad for a few minutes before the airspace clears. Even a small delay like this could drain an eVTOL’s battery enough to mean it cannot complete the “mission,” to use the industry term.
Not everyone thinks it will take so long. Uber Copter, for example, plans to start offering eVTOL commercial flights by 2023, and Voom likewise emphasised that their parent company, Airbus, is actively working on two eVTOL prototypes.
While prototypes exist, the industry’s recent experience with predictions for when autonomous cars would come to market suggests perhaps a note of caution is in order when projecting the viability of advanced transportation technology.
Ironically, Sebastian Thrun, the guy who literally founded Google’s self-driving dream and is now CEO of flying car startup Kitty Hawk, now believes we’ll get self-flying cars before self-driving cars.
Heyburn is bearish on the self-driving eVTOL future, believing even when they are ready for prime time, there will still be a trained and certified human pilot.
In that vein, he likened his company’s strategy to Netflix, which began as a DVD-shipping company and turned into a streaming service. Similarly, Heyburn believes, Blade will gain a foothold in the market selling one product while pivoting to another.
Given the analogy, it’s worth noting Netflix still ships DVDs and Blu Rays, although lots of people forget that. In fact, it’s a pretty solid business; in the second quarter of 2019, the company’s DVD arm made about $68 million in profit.
While the whole eVTOL thing gets figures out, both Voom and Blade purchase carbon offsets for all of their emissions. Uber does not, because, as an Uber spokesman explained, “Uber Copter is meant to be short term, generating operational and technology learnings for Uber Air which will offer pooled rides on all-electric, zero-emission eVTOLs.”
Samaras said purchasing offsets is “better than doing nothing” but that he longs for the day when purchasing carbon offsets is standard for any company rather than perceived as a bonus. He added that it’s “more like corporate goodwill” but “that doesn’t solve the problem.”
To put this all in perspective, Samaras began most of his answers to our questions with the phrase “in the grand scheme of things.” To be sure, these relatively few helicopter flights are a tiny sliver of the overall transportation emissions in any city in which it operates.
The frustrating aspect of transportation energy policy is, in debating ways to lower transportation emissions, one gets sucked into a cascading series of hypotheticals. What if people got around this way instead of that way? What if you put one more person in the vehicle? What if one fewer trip was taken? What if one more trip was taken? There’s always a permutation to make things better, and always a scenario where it gets worse.
As we sat on the tarmac waiting to take off from JFK, I spotted four private jets parked about a hundred feet away. Flying in a private jet with relatively few people is one of the worst modes of transport for carbon emissions. Blade and Voom both offer private jet charters as well.
As we made our way back to Manhattan, an Emirates’s A380 took off just to our left. An A380 produces 101 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometre if 80 per cent full. In other words, if that flight was going to Emirates’ hub in Dubai, each passenger on that plane accounts for, on average, 1.1 metric tons of CO2 that plane will emit. In 2014, the last year for which data is available, the average person emitted 4.98 metric tons of CO2.
In the end, figuring out the greenest way to get to the airport, especially for someone who flies as much as Blade’s clientele does, misses the point. The point would be to fly less, or at least to not do frivolous private jet rides everywhere.
And it’s a point that few people are apparently willing or able to entertain. Heyburn says people rarely ask him about the emissions of their trip. When I asked him why, he said that while Blade thinks about ways to be more efficient and offset their emissions, “most people don’t care.”