Manhattan operator halts service

 - October 30, 2009, 6:42 AM

New York’s only scheduled helicopter shuttle service is no more, at least for now.
U.S. Helicopter abruptly suspended scheduled and charter operations in September after three-and-a-half years of providing scheduled shuttle service between the Downtown Manhattan Heliport (Wall Street) or the East 34th Street Heliport and either Newark Liberty or Kennedy International Airports. One-way fares for the eight-minute flight in a Sikorsky S-76B averaged $159. U.S. Helicopter was the first scheduled helicopter service in Manhattan since the 1980s.

A spokesman told AIN that the decision was not a precursor to bankruptcy, but merely a necessary move as the company attempts to secure additional financing for operations. However, U.S. Helicopter has been relying on short-term, high-interest loans to finance ongoing operations and flights often had light passenger loads.

The company also struggled last year after being temporarily banished from the Downtown Manhattan heliport, when a private operator, FirstFlight, took over operation of that facility from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Downtown heliport opened in 1960 and had been operated by the Port Authority until October 2008, but its security plan for the heliport did not transfer to the new operator. FirstFlight failed to develop a TSA-approved security plan until December 11 last year. As part of U.S. Helicopter’s service, passengers and luggage are security screened at the heliport and then may proceed directly to their airline gates without having to be re-screened at the airports.

However, even after the TSA approved the plan, it would be months before U.S. Helicopter returned to Downtown because of outstanding “commercial issues” with FirstFlight involving rent and fees. In the interim, U.S. Helicopter used vans to move customers from Downtown to New York’s 34th Street heliport. It was a costly interruption that significantly eroded the company’s customer base.

U.S. Helicopter had attempted to increase its passenger loads, forming a code-share arrangement with Continental Airlines at Newark and offering Continental customers either free or highly discounted fares of $63 each way through January 15. U.S. Helicopter’s Web site provided this advice for those ticket holders: “We are temporarily halting all service as we regroup to add aircraft to our fleet and introduce new routes. This ‘standdown’ of service applies to our scheduled flights as well as our charter service. We plan to return to the skies of New York–a bigger and better airline–by late November. For information on refunds for tickets you hold for future travel, please contact your credit card company for a credit or refund. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and we look forward to serving you again very soon with our eight-minute airport shuttle.”