Best way to JFK airport from Manhattan: Helicopter, subway or Uber? - USA TODAY

2 months ago 34

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Travelers going into Manhattan from JFK or vice versa know the hassle of trying to coordinate that commute.For JetBlue's most loyal frequent flyers – those who achieve Mosaic+ status – a helicopter ride is now a free option.We put it to the test and had a race to see which method gets you into the city faster: Blade, the NYC subway or a rideshare during rush hour.

Any New Yorker knows it's a schlep to go from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in Queens. Travelers can opt to take the subway, which can be crowded and unreliable. They can choose to risk the vagaries of traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway in a taxi or rideshare. Or they can even take advantage of Blade's helicopter transfer service.

For JetBlue's most loyal frequent flyers – those who achieve Mosaic+ status – that aerial option has new appeal. Last month, JetBlue announced a partnership with Blade through which Mosaic+ members will get complimentary helicopter flights between Manhattan and JFK or Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Seats on the choppers usually go for $195. Lower-tier frequent flyers on JetBlue will also qualify for discounts on their first Blade rides.

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"It is an extremely important partnership for both companies because connectivity through urban air mobility between airports and airlines will become increasingly more important to flyers in the coming years," Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal told USA TODAY.

To test out how much potential time savings there is in taking the helicopter for frequent flyers (or those who choose to pay out of pocket) we decided to go head-to-head. 

Zach Wichter, USA TODAY'S air travel reporter, traveled from the NYC Bureau to JFK and back as a guest of Blade. At the same time, Nathan Diller, travel and cruises reporter, took the subway to the airport and an Uber back. 

Wiesenthal said that Blade does not see itself as being in competition with mass transit, because helicopter service is just so different from taking the subway.

"Essentially we're competing with ground transportation, largely Ubers. We're not competing with subways," he clarified. "With respect to trains, you have multiple transfers and carrying significant luggage, which may be burdensome. But the subway remains the least costly method to get between the city and the airports.”

Though in fairness, Blade and the subway have a similar number of phases involved. Without further ado: 

Blade helicopter to JFK

Total time door-to-door: 46 minutes.

Zach: I'd never ridden a helicopter before and I didn't know exactly what to expect. The first step was taking a Lyft to Blade Lounge West, on 30th Street and the Hudson River. From our office on Broadway and 52nd Street, the ride took about 11 minutes and cost $26.15 including a tip. 

After arriving, I waited in the Blade lounge where guests are offered free refreshments and club-like music thumped in the background. I spent about 10 minutes there before being called to board. Blade doesn't require passengers to arrive until 10 minutes before departure, so I could have shaved some time off my transfer by getting to the heliport closer to my 3:00 trip.

There were three other passengers onboard and the pilot gave us a very quick safety briefing before we lifted off a few minutes ahead of schedule. Everyone on the flight uses headphones and microphones to communicate because the cabin seems to have little sound insulation of its own.

Views of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty (and, for this avgeek, watching planes line up and take off on JFK's runway 13 right as we made our way to landing) were major highlights of the flight.

Less than 10 minutes after leaving the west side heliport, we touched down at JFK and I walked through the private air terminal to a waiting SUV, which dropped me off right at the TWA Hotel. I was supposed to stop the clock at Terminal 5 departures, but had a miscommunication with the driver and don't think it affected the time very much. Terminal 5 is right behind the TWA Hotel, and there was no traffic on the ramp to the departures level curb.

MTA subway ride to JFK

Total time door-to-door: 1 hour and 8 minutes. 

Nathan: I took the E Train from 53rd Street and 7th Avenue where the station was stifling on a 90-degree July afternoon, but the air inside the subway car was cool. For the first part of the trip, I wasn't able to find a seat, so I stood next to the door reading articles on my phone and checking social media at stops where I briefly had cell service.

The already half-empty train steadily dropped off more people than got on, and about halfway through the ride, I snagged a seat in the middle of the car and cruised the rest of the way from there. The only hiccup was a five-minute delay at Jamaica-Van Wyck, where the train sat with the doors open.

When I arrived at the Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue-JFK Airport station, I realized I needed to refill my MetroCard before boarding the AirTrain – which is an additional $8 to the flat $2.75 regular subway ride. I had to wait in line behind a couple doing the same thing, and the step added about three minutes to my trip.

But when I got to the AirTrain, I only waited another three minutes or so for it to arrive. A little over 10 minutes later, I saw the TWA Hotel appear outside the window, and I soon disembarked at Terminal 5. After a short walk through a winding hallway – made faster by moving walkways – I arrived at the JetBlue check-in area, nearly one hour and 10 minutes later. I lost that part of the race, but I got my steps in.

Uber back to the office in Midtown Manhattan from JFK

Total time door-to-door: 1 hour and 8 minutes.

Nathan: On the way back, I headed downstairs to the arrivals level and called an Uber around 4:00 p.m. Despite the car being three minutes away, a traffic jam in the pick-up area made it difficult for me to spot my ride. Not long after I got in, we hit more traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway, and alternated between coasting down the road and inching along between other cars.

There, too, I read articles on my phone and checked social media (what can I say, I’m a creature of habit). At one hour and eight minutes, nearly the exact same time as my outgoing trip, I made it back to my desk. The ride cost $94.88 including a tip.

Back to the office from JFK by Blade

Total time door-to-door: 1 hour 21 minutes

Zach: Having already beaten Nathan to JFK on the way out, I was fairly confident that my trip back would be speedier than his traffic-dependent Uber ride, but the stars (and schedules) just did not align.

The SUV had waited after dropping us off, and picked me and my Blade companion back up at Terminal 5 departures around 3:26. We were back at the helicopter terminal about six minutes later. Refreshments were available again, which was good, because we wound up having to wait 10-15 minutes in the lounge before boarding began. 

The Blade folks were kind enough to seat me up front for the ride back, which offered an even more incredible view, though slightly less intense air conditioning, which was missed on such a hot day.

Flying back to Manhattan was another smooth experience, but reality hit me like a wet blanket when I walked out of the Blade lounge into the Manhattan humidity about 50 minutes after leaving Terminal 5. It was rush hour in the city, and my Lyft back to the office was inching up 12th Avenue to meet me. I had gotten in the car by the hour mark, but the journey that took just 11 minutes on the way out took 24 minutes on the way back. Though, somehow it wound up being a few dollars cheaper.

What was it I said earlier about the vagaries of New York traffic?

The longer journey back, in the end, had very little to do with Blade itself. The helicopter took the same amount of time and still provided astounding scenery – even the pilot told me he's always spotting something cool and new. But ultimately, my schedule not lining up with Blade's departures, and typical rush hour traffic in the city, caused me to lag behind Nathan, whose times were remarkably consistent in both directions.

It just goes to show: no matter how you decide to get there, it's a good idea to leave yourself plenty of time when you head to the airport ... especially this summer. 

What else should travelers know?

In addition to the subway, mass transit users have the option of taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to Jamaica. The total cost of that ride, including the AirTrain transfer, is $15.75, or $18.75 during peak times in the rush hour direction.Blade has a strict luggage limit: just one carry-on-sized bag and one personal item. Each passenger can bring a maximum of 25 pounds of luggage on the helicopter. Blade partners with delivery service ToteTaxi for those with excess baggage, for an additional fee. Blade also lets passengers buy an extra seat for their bigger bags when space is available for $145. Blade will track your commercial flight and work to rebook you if you land late.Blade offers frequent flyer passes for $295 and $795 per year, which provide discounted rides for $145 and $95, respectively. Just like an airline flight, bad weather can ground helicopters. In fact, while planning this story, Blade had to reschedule our trip because thunderstorms had moved into the area. The company guarantees it will notify customers about any cancellations or delays at least one hour before their scheduled departure.Plus-size travelers beware: Blade warns that the helicopters may feel cramped for passengers who weigh more than 200 pounds.
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