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The threat of "carmageddon" gridlock during Los Angeles' freeway closure this past summer drew media attention to helicopter charter, as some locals forsook the road for rotor to reach the airport. The coverage likely gave the uninitiated an unrealistic impression of helicopter charter costs, as we'll see, but it also introduced many travelers to this form of air charter, which is an unbeatable option for some missions. Helicopters, after all, can get in and out of places you can't get to any other way.
Transporting passengers to or from an airport–typically to connect with a private aircraft–is among the most common executive missions for helicopter charters. The pickup or drop-off point may be a private property, golf course, corporate campus or building roof.
Helicopters can also be faster door-to-door on some routes that would seem to call for fixed wing, especially when you factor in roundabout routings and arrival congestion, which helicopters typically bypass.
"It's a time savings, which is what our customers want," said Carolyn Marino of Sikorsky-owned Associated Aircraft Group (AAG) in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
The greatest time savings in chartering a helicopter comes from its swift access to otherwise remote places. "We enabled the CEO of a major retailer to visit half a dozen stores all over New England in one afternoon," said Brian Lantier of Heliflite, based at Newark Liberty International Airport. Lantier said the helicopter landed in adjacent parking lots and nearby fields.
If you charter business jets, you take for granted a two-person crew, two or more turbine engines and posh ground-support facilities. But twin-engine executive-class helicopters–the Sikorsky S-76, Bell 430, Agusta 109 and Eurocopter AS355 TwinStar–and operators catering to the executive market are in limited supply. In the U.S., most are on the East and West Coasts, and not all use two-pilot crews. If your company policy or personal preference mandates two pilots, or you live in an area where executive helicopters are hard to find, the good news is that operators can supply a second pilot if requested and will reposition an aircraft if the work warrants it.
Briles Wing & Helicopter in Van Nuys often takes one of its Agusta 109 Powers to Baja California to service customers spending time on their yachts in the area. "We'll ferry the helicopter down–it's about a six-hour flight," said Lance Strumpf, the company's chief pilot.
During last summer's L.A. freeway closure, the media cited a one-way fare of $150 for the chartered chopper flights to the airport. Attach a big asterisk to that figure. For starters, helicopter charters don't typically offer one-way pricing. Briles operated shared on-demand special charters with FAA approval during the freeway closure. Return seats were filled with disembarking airline travelers, making the one-way fares possible. Chartering an Agusta 109 for such a flight would normally cost $3,000 to $5,000, according to Strumpf.
But one-way pricing may be entering the rotor lexicon. AAG introduced one-way rates this summer, including between Manhattan and Teterboro [N.J.] Airport ($2,400) and between Manhattan and the Hamptons ($7,200), a savings of some 20 percent over usual rates, according to Marino.
For non-flat-rate charters, operators typically charge a two-hour minimum or more, depending on how long your mission will occupy the helicopter. And bear in mind that there may be times when you won't be able to have a helicopter stand by. As Lantier of Heliflite said, "On Friday afternoons in the summer, I can't afford to have [a helicopter] sitting anywhere."
To find rotor charter, start with the sources you use to access fixed-wing aircraft–charter operators and brokers or your flight department. You can find operator databases via online portals, including aircharterguide.com, nbaa.org (click on Products & Services) and rotor.com (through its membership directory). In what may be a portent of greater integration of rotor and fixed wing, AAG has forged a partnership with fixed-wing charter powerhouse GAMA Aviation to provide one-stop shopping for trips that involve both fixed wing and rotor.
If you work with a broker for air charter, be prepared for the broker to disclose your identity to the charter operator. "There's a distinction between brokering jets and helicopters," explained Strumpf. "If you tell a jet crew to go from Nantucket to Teterboro, they don't have to scout the landing site and get permission from the city or county, check for power lines or note the condition of the ground. We can't do that if the broker doesn't want to disclose who the [charterer] is."
Perform the same due diligence about charter companies offering rotor as you would for those providing fixed-wing lift: assure yourself about the quality of the aircraft and crews, the solvency of the operator and the adequacy of insurance. Verify auditing by a recognized agency. Check on the cabin configuration. If you'll be flying over water, confirm that the helicopter is equipped with inflatable floats. Ask whether it's equipped with skids or wheels; if the former, you'll likely be relegated to the perimeter of the hangar area to keep the rotor wash from other aircraft.