This ‘Uber for helicopters’ startup just flew into a fight over noise
Some New Yorkers have a great trick to beat Memorial Day traffic: They pull up an app to summon Blade, an Uber-style helicopter service that whisks passengers to posh destinations like the Hamptons. The trip is made more pleasant thanks to sippy cups of rosé and other little perks furnished by Blade. The service is such a hit that well-heeled investors, including Google’s Eric Schmidt and IAC’s Barry Diller, just plunked down $6 million to help it grow.
But not everyone is rooting for Blade to succeed. Some New Yorkers hate the very idea of it—and not because it’s yet another tech startup aimed at the rich. Manon Gauthier, a film editor who lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, described her beef.
“I don’t like helicopters at all. It seems that there are more and more of them in Park Slope. I don’t remember hearing them when I first moved here nine to 10 years ago,” Gauthier says. “With the police interventions, tourist tours and the Hamptons commuters my residential neighborhood is getting more and more noisy.”
Gauthier is hardly the only one who has grown fed up with the constant whup-whup-whup over their heads. A coalition called “Stop the Chop,” founded in 2013, is mustering pressure to bring down the helicopters.
The group’s president, Delia Von Neuschatz, says the choppers bring virtually no economic benefit to New York, while creating a major nuisance for the millions of people who live under their flight paths. She adds that Stop the Chop, which has 2000 members drawn from riverside neighborhoods like Battery Park and Brooklyn Heights, is using its newfound non-profit status to raise money and muster political and legal challenges.
Von Neuschatz also says that Blade is less of a nuisance than the sight-seeing helicopters that swarm city skies, but that the problem is already out of control. “The commuter traffic is only a fraction, but the last thing the city needs is more helicopter traffic,” she says. “Absolutely, it will exacerbate things.”
Blade did not reply to repeated request for comment. The Eastern Regional Helicopter Council, a lobby group for the industry, said in a statement that “the helicopter industry is a critical contributor to the regional economy and to our region’s emergency response infrastructure,” adding, “Our industry has dramatically improved safety and reduced noise in this air space and continues to do so.”
A fight for helipads
For Blade and other aspiring “Uber-for-helicopter” services (including Uber itself), the key to making it work is not so much access to choppers, but in finding a place for them to land.
Even in tech-obsessed San Francisco, for instance, helicopter services are virtually a no-go as a result of citizen opposition. (Last year, the city reportedly obtained its first heliport in two decades, but one that will be restricted for medical services.)
Even Uber has come up short in making its “Chopper” service fly in San Francisco. A source familiar with the company last year said that regulations had stymied its efforts, and that Uber was contemplating barge options in the Bay.
In New York, however, three heliports in lower Manhattan are wide open for business. Well, for now at least.
Opponents have lined up support from city officials and local members of Congress to terminate the contract of the company operating most of the helicopters in the city. Stop the Chop’s Von Neuschatz claims Mayor Bill De Blasio could easily ground the choppers, but won’t do so for reasons that are “incomprehensible.” A spokesman for De Blasio’s office said he would look into the matter but failed to offer a formal comment.
The bottom line for now, then, is that Blade’s New York customers can probably sip their rosé in peace for the time being. But if the company wants to expand to other major urban areas, it will likely face a heliport-by-heliport battle.
If you’re curious, here’s a screenshot from Blade’s app which shows a one-way fare from lower Manhattan to the Hamptons (approx 106 miles) for $3,150; as the app suggests, you can save money if you are willing to share your ride with others.
Correction, September 15, 2015: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of funding that Blade raised in a recent round. It is $6 million.