How much do you tip the driver?

Marketplace Staff Mar 27, 2007

How much do you tip the driver?

Marketplace Staff Mar 27, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Delta Air Lines announced today it expects to get out from under bankruptcy protection by the end of April. It’s promising more value for shareholders and better customer service.

That’s good news for almost anybody who flies and even better news for business travelers. Some of them have to cope with the hassles of getting to and from their flights a couple of times a week. The free market, though, has come up with an alternative to that chaos, and Jason Paur checked it out.

JASON PAUR: Airline travel can be trying. That’s no secret. But really, it’s not the flying with the airline that’s usually the tough part: it’s the getting to, from and through the airport that causes the most headaches.

With traffic, check in and security, it can take several hours to make it to your gate, even if it’s just the short distance say from Wall Street to John F. Kennedy airport in New York.

But, if you’re willing to pay, you can float over most of those headaches.

[SOUND: Inside a helicopter]

CHRISTINE CATNEY: So right now, we are at a thousand feet over Long Island, just crossed over from Manhattan.

That’s helicopter pilot Christine Catney.

CATNEY: Right up ahead of us, you can see Kennedy airport, just about nine miles away.

Catney works for U.S. Helicopters, a scheduled airline that flies passengers from Manhattan to JFK. And at more than 150 miles an hour, that trip only takes about eight minutes and it cost a $169 — one way.

It’s the nation’s only scheduled helicopter airline and is less than a year old. It operates flights from two heliports in Manhattan to both JFK and Newark airport in New Jersey.

Jerry Murphy is the president and CEO. A veteran of the airline industry, he knew the hassles of travel first hand, and says the business model was honed over years of research talking with the people who fly the most.

JERRY MURPHY: Our customer base is the business traveler. Not that we’re not interested in leisure traveler, but the business traveler is our customer. So the business traveler, if they can spend two hours more in the office, either cleaning up or conducting new business or new sales that they can possibly make, it gives them back their time.

Sitting at the Wall Street heliport is one of those business travelers. Michael Starkenburg works in venture capital and travels a lot.

He’s on his way back home to LA and says the time savings is one thing, but so is the hassle. Passengers on the helicopter pass through security at the heliport, where there are no lines, and are dropped off at a terminal and walk straight to their gate.

Starkenburg enjoys the experience so much, he hopes the service expands.

MICHAEL STARKENBURG: In LA, there’s a helicopter pad at terminal 4, right in in the middle of LAX. And I live in Orange County, which is an hour away. If I could find somebody who would put me in that terminal helicopter, I’d do it in a second. You know, for the same dollar-per-minute savings, I’d do it in a second.

U.S. Helicopters says they do have plans to expand to other cities around the country, though they’re not saying which ones just yet.

The market is limited to places where the time savings can be enough to justify the price, according to airline analyst Richard Aboulafia. He says because helicopters are so expensive to operate, they’re unlikely to be used by anybody other than high-end travelers in congested cities.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: Helicopter travel costs are relatively astronomical. If a business jet is, say, three or four times commercial scheduled service, first class, then a helicopter service is even more than that. Several times that. So ultimately, it’s only going to be used for a very small market over very small areas.

Right now, many of the flights on the eight-passenger helicopters aren’t exactly full.

But even with a market limited to the travel elite, traffic isn’t getting any better in most places, and lines at the airport don’t seem to be shrinking. U.S. Helicopter hopes this continuing inconvenience will push more customers into their cabins.

From New York, I’m Jason Paur for Marketplace.

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