Uber Copter goes public in New York -- here's what it's like
Need a faster way to get to JFK? Uber has you covered -- provided you pack light.
Tim StevensFormer editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
New York City is served by not one, but three major airports. You'd think that kind of choice would make it blissfully easy to fly into or out of Manhattan. In reality, trying to get to any of those airports results in a painful decision between the lesser of many evils, including costly hired cars or affordable but inconvenient trains.
Increasingly, New York's business travelers are turning to Uber to get them to their airport of choice, hoping that the traffic and surge-pricing gods smile in their favor. Today, Uber launches a new service that will free you from mundane earthly traffic -- if you're an efficient packer and can afford the cost.
Watch this: Uber Copter: NYC to JFK in 8 minutes or less
The service is called Uber Copter, and it might just be the new best way to get to JFK. The program launched earlier this summer, but initially only to Uber's top-tier customers. Today it's open to everyone, and the company was kind enough to invite me for a quick spin.
The process of booking a Copter ride is easy, which is the most amazing part of the whole service. I arbitrarily chose the Bowery Ballroom as my point of origination and the amazing TWA Hotel as my destination. I entered my chosen time of departure and, in addition to the usual UberX and Uber Black offerings, the app also gave me a new listing for Uber Copter.
For the price of $199.82, the app not only reserved me a helicopter ride from the heliport on the southern tip of Manhattan, but also lined up an UberX car on one side to get me to the heliport as well as a second car to get me from the JFK heliport to the hotel. This was all done completely seamlessly.
This process, stringing together multiple means of travel to get you where you need to go, is called multimodality and this is Uber's first foray into providing it to the masses. It won't be the last. Down the road, look for the Uber app to bundle in things like scooters and bikes, depending on the situation.
But today we're talking helicopters and, after a short jaunt down from the Bowery to the Manhattan heliport in the back of an UberX Toyota Camry, the Uber app chimed to prompt me of my next mode of transport. This time the app listed the means of conveyance as a Black Bell 430 and, instead of a license plate number, it listed the tail number of the helicopter -- a nice touch.
After a quick check-in at the terminal and a short safety briefing, I was escorted (along with four other passengers) out to the helicopter and, after a second short safety overview, away we went. Less than eight minutes later we touched down at JFK.
Yes, just eight minutes to get from downtown Manhattan to JFK.
There, another UberX was waiting to pick me up (a Mitsubishi Outlander this time), and again the app seamlessly picked up my journey to my final destination.
Now, there are certainly plenty of ways to book helicopters out of Manhattan, but Uber is unique in enabling this ease of multimodality. And, while that near-$200 cost is high, it is more affordable than some other helicopter services. Putting it in more relevant perspective: I've seen rush-hour surge pricing of well in excess of $100 to make that same route in the back of someone's Prius. Personally, I'd spend the extra money to get in the choppah.
But cost isn't the only strike against. Baggage might be a concern. Passengers are limited to a personal item (purse or small laptop bag) plus a single piece of baggage that must meet TSA regulations for carry-on size (that is: 9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches). If you're packing heavy for a fortnight-long tour of Europe, you might want to stick with Uber Black.
And there's one final restriction that makes this a bit of a deal-breaker for me: no Android. Yes, Uber Copter is iOS-only for now, but I'm told that'll be changing soon.
And what about other routes? Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, told me that they're looking at other ways to deploy Uber Copter, but for now the Manhattan-JFK route is all that's in the cards. The company hopes to deploy its broader Uber Elevate service in 2023, but until then, if you need to get to JFK in a hurry and your travel budget allows it, Uber Copter is here and it's well worth the premium.