How helicopter-friendly are America’s biggest cities?

 - September 13, 2006, 2:16 PM

If a city is to be considered friendly to helicopters, by what criteria would this friendliness be measured? The number of heliports? Heliports per capita? Heliports per helicopter? The number of helicopters based in that city?

All of those criteria are important, but there is another critical factor that makes a metropolitan area friendly to helicopters, and that is: can you fly to that city and expect to be able to land near your destination?

In other words, to be useful helicopters ought to be able to fly to where their owners want to go with a minimum of fuss, obtain fuel and other services, enjoy reasonable fees and fair ATC treatment and maintain, naturally, a high level of safety. That’s how airplanes are used; why should it be any different for helicopters?

In this first attempt to evaluate helicopter friendliness, AIN applied some of the above criteria to five populous metropolitan areas in the U.S. We’ll consider adding other cities and ranking areas outside the U.S. in future issues.

We also asked helicopter manufacturers to provide their opinion about which locale is most helicopter-friendly, what characteristics make a place welcoming to helicopter operators, how they help cities and local government authorities build heliports to attract helicopter operators and which city in the world is home to the largest number of its helicopters.

Only two helicopter manufacturers acknowledged our request. One reported that it was too busy to answer (understandable since it is working hard to rebuild its business). The other, Robinson Helicopter, was most responsive and, in AIN’s opinion, wins an award as the helicopter manufacturer that is most diligent about making sure there are places for its products to land.

One surprise that came out of researching this article was that major cities in the U.S. lack public heliports. “Public” in this context means a heliport that is available for public use, without the user having to obtain advance permission. Each of the cities AIN examined–Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Houston–has dozens of heliports, yet most of them cannot be used by a typical Part 91 or
135 helicopter operator without advance permission. The heliports in each of these cities are mostly hospital, police/fire department and private facilities.

What Makes a City Helicopter-friendly?
In evaluating each area’s helicopter friendliness, AIN counted the number of heliports within the boundaries of the Class B airspace surrounding the central city or airport. Each heliport was checked to see if it was publicly or privately owned and if it was open to the public. Using a database provided by Flight-HeliCAS, we tallied the number of helicopters based roughly around each metropolitan area near the chosen cities.

The results, seen in the accompanying chart, show that in terms of publicly
accessible heliports, New York wins hands-down, with a total of five facilities. In Los Angeles, despite the fact that most buildings are constructed with integral heliports, we could not find any heliport open to the public. Each of the other cities had one publicly available heliport, although open-to-the-public Bay Electric Supply Heliport near League City, Texas, is not exactly convenient to downtown Houston.

The results of this research don’t bode well for the helicopter industry. The helicopter’s capabilities make it an ideal transportation mode for whisking people into cities with congested roads, which certainly describes the five cities AIN looked at for this article. And surely, if there were more heliports in metropolitan areas, the demand for helicopters would grow.

Helicopters, of course, can land anywhere that permission is granted, but public heliports are needed for more regular operations and to provide services at destinations. No one is going to spend the substantial amount of money required to own and operate a helicopter unless it provides some true utility. Judging from the results of the research for this article, such utility is hard to come by in many large U.S. cities.