A tech start-up known as the “Uber for helicopters” has launched a new service at the Santa Monica Airport, beginning this weekend with quick trips to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
The New York based on-demand helicopter service, Blade, is also brokering trips to Palm Springs, Ojai, Santa Barbara and San Diego in under an hour.
“There is no such thing as rush hour in the sky,” is Blade’s official tagline.
A seat on a helicopter to Thermal or Palm Springs ran for about $700 this weekend each way. Outside of the two weekends when they are providing regular service to Coachella, Blade will not schedule regular flights out of SMO. Instead, flights are booked on demand through the Blade app.
The app allows you to “crowd source” a flight on your own schedule and see if anyone wants to join you. Blade’s marking and communications officer Caitlin Deering explained customers buy and sell extra seats for credit toward future flights.
“Essentially, you can open your app – it takes 3 minutes – put all your information in and the helicopter will arrive within 20 minutes of booking,” Deering said. “You don’t even have to talk to anybody.”
While Deering declined to describe their target clientele, Blade advertises itself as a premium service. Over the weekend, the company set up a lounge for customers heading to Coachella sponsored by the tequila company Casa Dragones. Passengers received a glass of tequila with a single hand-cut cloudless spherical ice cube (yes, artisan ice is now a thing) when they arrived. A team of flight attendants takes care of the traveler’s bag – which has a maximum weight of 25 pounds.
“The experience starts as soon as you get to the lounge, it’s not just the helicopter flight,” Deering said.
It’s not clear what impact this new service may have on airport traffic. Year over year, helicopter operations are down 36 percent at the airport, with 149 flights in February 2017, according to the most recent monthly operations report. Helicopters accounted for just three percent of total operations.
Anti-airport activists fear the new service flies in the face of the City’s short-term goal of reducing airport traffic by shortening the runway and long term goal of shutting down SMO for good.
As for the City, leaders were caught off guard by the news of the service on Good Friday. City Manager Rick Cole told the Daily Press Friday afternoon he was trying to get Blade’s president on the phone to learn more about their business. Cole believes Blade at a minimum needs a business license to operate in Santa Monica and may need a commercial operating permit.
“You would absolutely think that would be worked out before they took off, but on the other hand they are operating like Lyft and Uber,” Cole said. “These are new companies operating in the grey area of the law.”
Cole says the company is pushing the envelope on charter operations. Blade serves as a liaison between commercial pilots who presumably have permission to fly out of SMO and passengers. When it comes to current law, the fact Blade does not usually schedule flights – but merely facilitates them – may be an important distinction. Cole declined to comment on how the service fits into the City’s overall goals for the airport.
“It’s not really a question about our feelings, the question is what are the rules.”