U.S. Helicopter expands New York shuttle service

 - December 21, 2006, 6:39 AM

U.S. Helicopter, the only scheduled helicopter airline operating in the U.S., recently expanded its New York City service to include departures from the East 34th Street heliport.

Jerry Murphy, president and CEO of U.S. Helicopter, told AIN that flights from the 34th Street heliport to Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport would begin by early this month. The company also announced it would expand its current service from the Downtown Manhattan/Wall Street heliport to include Newark beginning on December 18.

Founded in 2003, the company launched its New York airport shuttle service last March and now offers 24 daily weekday flights between the Downtown Manhattan heliport and JFK and Newark (every 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.), as
well as two daily weekday flights between Downtown Manhattan and Igor Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Bridgeport, Conn., where the helicopters are based.

A one-way ticket on the New York airports shuttle costs $159 plus security fees, according to the company’s Web site (www.flyush.com), making the service slightly more expensive than a luxury limousine or sedan service but still within the range of the middle managers Murphy hopes will be the company’s bread-and-butter customers. The flight takes less than 10 minutes, whereas driving from Manhattan to any of the three New York-area airports can take an hour in traffic. The Bridgeport run takes 20 minutes and costs the same as the airports shuttle.

The helicopter shuttle’s value to customers is largely dependent on the time they save getting to the airport compared with ground transportation, Murphy said. U.S. Helicopter’s aircraft land directly on the sponsor airline’s property and use the airline’s frequency to obtain departure clearances. But because all U.S. Helicopter flights are operated under VFR, bad weather can bring the service to a halt in a hurry.

“Fog can be a problem,” Murphy said. “But when you’re down below 500 feet visibility, you’ve got delays at the airport anyway.”

Murphy said the company chose Downtown Manhattan as the launch pad for the shuttle because of its proximity to Wall Street’s financial community, law firms and insurance companies. He declined to report the total number of seats the company has sold to date, emphasizing that the service is still in start-up mode.

“We never envisioned full flights,” Murphy said, noting that the company figured it could be profitable with, and has achieved, at least 50- to 60-percent occupancy.
Murphy said he had hoped to have the East 34th Street location running in July but encountered delays assembling the security team required by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the  Department of Transportation.

U.S. Helicopter operates as a scheduled air carrier under FAR Part 135 rules, because Part 121 refers only to fixed-wing aircraft, not helicopters. The same security screening requirements apply, though, which means that all passengers flying U.S. Helicopter must pass through a TSA checkpoint before boarding. New facilities for security screening were being constructed at East 34th Street, Murphy said, in a renovated office trailer at the site. Atlantic Aviation, the sole FBO serving the heliport, occupies a second trailer.

Passengers traveling with the company’s major air carrier partners (Continental Airlines at Newark and American Airlines at JFK) will receive their boarding passes at the heliport and have their bags checked through to connecting flights.
U.S. Helicopter operates a fleet of five Sikorsky S-76s, with two pilots and up to eight passengers aboard every flight. Murphy said he plans to have eight helicopters online by the middle of this year, and ultimately expand to 30 aircraft by 2010. The company expects to take delivery of four new S-76 C++s next year.

Murphy said he is satisfied with the performance of the S-76 and the customer service he’s received from Sikorsky and noted that the S-92 “could well be a helicopter we could grow into.” He said he had initially also considered using the AgustaWestland AW139 or the Bell 430 but could not secure delivery of either aircraft soon enough.

Scheduled helicopter service is not a new concept in the U.S. In the early 1970s, Pan Am and New York Airways began offering helicopter shuttle service from a helipad atop what is now the MetLife building. The helipad closed in 1977 after a fatal crash. The service continued for several more years out of the other New York heliports and eventually folded along with Pan Am.

Helicopter airline service has been alive and well in Canada, however, for nearly two decades. HeliJet operates daily service between Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., using the Sikorsky S-76 and S-61. Terminals are located at the downtown Vancouver Harbour Heliport, Vancouver International Airport and Victoria Harbour Heliport.
Murphy said U.S. Helicopter’s long-term plans include expanding to other U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. “We see about 10 cities in the U.S. and probably about five on the international side, but the mission is really to get New York up and operating,” he said.

“New York is a huge market, and as you look at expanding into another marketplace, at least half of your business is going to come from New York anyway. We want to try to complete the ramp-up by the middle of the year. At that point we’d be in a position to look at a possible other city by late 2007,” he added.

Another company, America Rising, tried unsuccessfully to launch helicopter airline service between Washington, D.C. and New York. When asked whether he had ever considered competing with or partnering with America Rising’s founder, entrepreneur Steve Walker, Murphy told AIN that he had some “early conversations” with Walker but has not spoken to him in about three years.

Murphy acknowledged the considerable security hurdles that would need to be overcome to operate out of the nation’s capital. The city’s only public use heliport, at South Capitol Street, has effectively been closed to private operators since 9/11.