By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
No, the headline is not referring to rollerblading. Rather, BLADE is the latest way to get from the Five Towns into Manhattan and to do so quickly. The cost for each one-way ticket? $195.
The trip from the heliport section of JFK to West 30th Street in Manhattan took only five minutes and can best be described as “soft and subdued.” There was no TSA, no lines, no removing shoes and belts. There was also free parking 20 feet from the terminal, and a state-of-the-art coffee dispenser that looked like it was from 100 years into the future. Many fliers use the service when they are leaving or arriving from commercial airline flights, but some Five Towns residents are using BLADE as an alternative to commuting to or from work in Manhattan.
The company was founded by the creative and brilliant former chief financial officer of both Sony America and Warner Brothers, Rob Wiesenthal. He founded the company with the dual purpose of reinventing helicopter travel and making it affordable to the general businessperson who absolutely must get into Manhattan quickly.
BLADE uses mostly Bell 407 planes that are called “New Light Aircraft.” The company vets each plane and pilot for safety and performance. The helicopters are owned by individual operators — similar to the system that Uber employs. The wider fuselage and smooth ride of the Bell 407s make you feel like you are sitting in a massage chair in some hot-air balloon, soaring blissfully over Queens, the Hudson River, and then Manhattan. The special noise-reduction BLADE, the Bose headphones, and the completely enclosed helicopter body all add to the experience of floating on a pool mattress rather than flying.
The trip was arranged for me by 5TJT owner and editor Larry Gordon. A number of halachic questions and implications went through my head. Is Tefillas HaDerech recited? If so, when and where? Are there possible yichud issues? Is shkiyah later when airborne? (But does that really make a difference? Who is davening on a helicopter?) Does one bentch gomel after a helicopter flight? I agreed to take the flight precisely because of the opportunity to explore these halachos and more.
Upon landing, BLADE corporate executives Will Heyburn and Patrick Albano took me to their corporate headquarters to answer questions and to meet with Rob Wiesenthal as well. A number of questions were posed, some more serious than others.
5TJT: Rob, what were your goals in establishing this company? You were already flying high at Sony Television, at Warner Brothers. Why did you do this?
RW: I saw an industry that was big and clunky, that only catered to those who could spend many thousands of dollars. There were no strong brands. It just didn’t make sense. I wanted to reinvent helicopter travel into something that was not intimidating, that was simple, affordable, and fun.
5TJT: Who is your general target market? We see that you are trying to get people from the Five Towns who need to get to the city in a hurry, but who is your typical passenger?
RW: The age range is typically 38–45 years of age, 60 percent male, 40 percent female. Businesspeople. We are also trying to get those who are flying in from JFK and don’t want to take a cab or an Uber.
5TJT: Have you ever considered offering service to the Catskills from JFK? Many people from this area go upstate every weekend during the summers. They typically leave on a Thursday evening or a Friday afternoon and have to get there before Shabbos. They come back on Sunday night or Monday morning.
RW: We have considered it. It may be a future project. We have had people request a charter flight to there. There are at least two heliports there—one in Monticello and another at Sullivan County airport.
5TJT: What about Lakewood, New Jersey? There are a number of Five Towns residents who have children living in Lakewood, New Jersey, and they would love to reach there in 15 to 20 minutes. There are many weddings there, too.
RW: Believe it or not, we have a large contingency from Deal, New Jersey, that often flies into Manhattan. We arrange charter flights for them. But we would consider Lakewood as well if there was enough of a demand for it.
5TJT: How much would it cost to charter a flight there?
RW: It would be $2,300 for flying five passengers.
5TJT: So that would be $460 per person. How do you calculate the prices for charters?
RW: It is not based on the length of the flight. It is the total flying time — that is from base to port, plus flying time with passengers, and then back to base. Lakewood would be 1.5 hours. We also have an app that actually crowdsources helicopter flights anywhere that we don’t have service.
5TJT: Do you have investors?
RW: Yes. We have a seaplane operation in Florida, too. As an investment, it is worthwhile—a $2.5 million helicopter has tax benefits of 100% depreciation in the first year. The Bell 407 is a real workhorse and the profits are handsome.
5TJT: Are there any helicopters with restrooms?
RW: No, there aren’t. But the trip is at most seven minutes, so we imagine that it probably is not so necessary. Plus we remind everyone to use the restroom before they go up.
5TJT: No one reminded me.
RW: They clearly assessed you as one who would be able to manage.
5TJT: What about meal service? Have you ever provided kosher meal service?
RW: Not yet, but there is always a first.
5TJT: Kosher GPS, that app for locating kosher eateries, tells me that we are within a mile of Mr. Broadway and Abigael’s. We could call them and offer them an opportunity to be the first kosher-meal provider on commercial helicopter flights to and from Manhattan.
RW: [joking] We actually picked this location because of its close proximity to those two restaurants.
5TJT: Do your helicopters use regular fuel or jet fuel? And how many gallons did we use up when we deplaned? Actually, that’s not such an accurate term — deplaned. Is there a term specifically for helicopters?
RW: Not really. We use “landed.”
5TJT: How about “de-BLADE?” It’s short and says what you want to say.
RW: Wow, that’s really pretty good.
5TJT: Don’t worry; there is no charge for that one. Just maybe a college scholarship for a grandson, or a yeshiva scholarship.
RW: You know, by the way, “BLADEd” is a real verb now. People use it like the way they use “google.” As in, “I googled it.” They now say, “I BLADE to the city.”
5TJT: The corporate culture here is pretty interesting. Kind of like Silicon Valley with its millennials. For example, I noticed a lot of the men who work here are not wearing socks, and if your entire staff were to walk into a bar, I imagine they would all be carded.
RW: Well, if you want energy and new ideas you need to have younger people. I am wearing socks, by the way. Hey, Patrick, where are your socks?
5TJT: I see the software you are using. It is impressive. Did you adapt it from previously existing airline software or is it completely proprietary?
RW: We actually developed it ourselves from the ground up. We have different systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but our 24-hour center is right here in New York. The platform is right here.
5TJT: Where are your software developers?
RW: They are also right here in this office, in that section over there.
5TJT: How many helicopters do you have going into Manhattan?
RW: We have 23 helicopters in our accessible fleet.
5TJT: Will, what are the criteria for deciding what future venues BLADE will pursue?
Will Heyburn: It depends upon the level of congestion between the airport and the city, what heliports are available, the alternative methods of travel in the city, and the partnerships that we can make there.
5TJT: Did you ever consider Israel, whether there is a market or a partnership that you can pursue there?
RW: As of yet we have not, but you never know.
5TJT: Well, thank you so much. It has been a wonderful experience, but I think I am on the 4:20 helicopter back to JFK and it is now 4:17.
RW: Don’t worry, we are holding it for you. We have you sitting next to the pilot on the way back, but let’s get you on board.
Addressing the aforementioned halachic questions, it seems that Rav Ovadia Yosef holds (See Yalkut Yosef Vol. II, Siman 110:12) that a blessing of Tefilas HaDerech is recited —even within the city — when traveling by helicopter. It should be recited upon being airborne. Dayan Roth holds that shkiyah is later when one is at a higher altitude (Vol. I of his responsa). One should also bentch gomel, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.