When ride-share giant Uber teased plans last month to launch UberCopter, a roughly $200, eight-minute helicopter service from Manhattan to JFK International Airport in New York City, skeptics came out of the woodwork.
Advocacy groups like Stop the Chop have long argued helicopters in the airspace of America’s largest city pose myriad risks, including basic traffic, noise and air pollution, and safety. An unrelated fatal helicopter crash into a local skyscraper soon after Uber’s announcement seemed to embolden critics of the city’s often elite-targeted transit products. Not only were UberCopters a potential threat to safety, they said, but for a company that has contributed (along with rivals like Lyft) to congested city streets across America, a new program like this was likely to leave a giant flying carbon footprint in the air, too.
Well, UberCopter has arrived, reportedly launching as scheduled on Tuesday. If nothing else, it was poised to emerge as a potent symbol of America’s spectacular wealth gap at a time when concerns are mounting over climate change’s disparate impacts on people across the socioeconomic divide.
After all, generally speaking, helicopter engines burn more fuel and emit far more CO2 emissions than cars do over the same distance. “There are many environmental and health impacts from helicopters—all of them negative,” John Dellaportas, president of Stop the Chop, argued in an interview, adding, “It makes the air we breathe worse.”
The helicopters Uber was slated to use for the service are dual-engined, like most modern aircraft. But experts expressed renewed skepticism of relatively high-emission transit options targeted at tiny numbers of wealthy users, like this one, which is only available to Platinum and Diamond Uber rewards members.
“It’s a step in the wrong direction in an era when we should be doing everything possible to move society towards a low-carbon, clean footing,” said Darby Jack, associate professor of environmental health science at Columbia University.
A spokesperson for Uber did not directly comment on the environmental impacts of their service. But they argued the company was fitting into a larger travel ecosystem, as it did over the last decade on the street. In this case, UberCopter is operating out of Heliflite in Newark, New Jersey, “one of the safest and most reputable” helicopter operators in the country, according to the spokesperson.
But there’s a lot at stake when it comes to both health and the environment in the cities the company is eying as part of its medium-term “Uber Air” plans. NYC was ranked the tenth most-polluted city in the U.S., according to a recent report by the American Lung Association that focused on data from 2015-2017. The report found that there were 10 days out of the year where the air pollution levels were especially unhealthy for “sensitive populations” like children and those in poverty. These people are directly affected by air pollution and can experience severe asthma attacks and even premature death.
This isn’t just a New York issue. Uber has floated plans to extend a similar service to Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia, with test runs beginning as early as 2020. In the same report by the American Lung Association, Los Angeles was ranked the smoggiest city in the U.S.
According to Jack, helicopters are significant sources of particulate air pollution, and have been shown to be major sources of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon particles (PAHs)—an especially harmful component of particulate air pollution.
“Emissions are particularly high when helicopters are idling on the ground,” Jack said. “This would include both CO2 and particulate air pollution.” While many major airlines, like Delta and jetBlue, offer voluntary carbon emissions offset programs—which engage in arenas like renewable energy, forestry, and energy efficiency—Uber does not.
Besides environmental concerns, business analysts pointed out that a popular service like UberCopter already existed in NYC—and that it was cheaper than the one the ride-share empire was selling. Blade, dubbed the “Uber for helicopters” by Business Insider, offers private and shared helicopter rides in the Northeast, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among other cities, and allows customers to charter their own flight anywhere in the world, with the option to crowdsource. It also recently started offering airport service, including to JFK, which was listed on its site at $195.
Still, Robbie Kellman Baxter, a business strategy consultant, said UberCopter would likely be able to generate real demand for helicopter rides. “They’re not going to (only) be taking market share from other players already in market,” she said. “They’re market makers who will create demand from among people who hadn’t considered themselves helicopter people.”
But just because a service is in demand doesn’t make it good for the community—or the planet, critics said. “There may be a demand for it in the same way there is demand for a corner crack dealer,” Dellaportas said. “Many bad things are in demand.”
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