Uber launches helicopter service and expands ‘no talking’ rides

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber is turning down the volume — and looking to the sky — in its latest round of new services.

The company announced Tuesday it is expanding its conversation-free car trips to more rides and launching a helicopter service in New York City for a speedy (and expensive) trip to the airport.

Users will need to select a Comfort trip from its list of options, including Uber Pool, UberX, Uber Black and UberXL. The new Comfort tier of vehicles features mid-size cars, offers extra legroom and lets passengers request their ideal temperature.

Users nationwide will now be able to request car trips in which they won’t have to talk to drivers, allowing riders down time “if you need to respond to emails or are in the mood for a nap,” according to the company. In May, Uber first launched “quiet mode” on Uber Black and Uber SUV, its premium ridehail services.

But Uber’s new helicopter service, Uber Copter, will be so fast there won’t be time to squeeze in a nap. The 8 minute trips will be offered in Manhattan south of Houston Street to JFK International Airport on weekdays during afternoon rush hour. One-way tickets will cost about $200.

Uber envisions replacing the helicopter trips with autonomous electric flying cars that it expects will make transportation faster and safer. For now, Uber is starting with a limited helicopter schedule with the number of trips determined by demand. Not anyone can book a helicopter ride. Only Uber customers with the highest levels of status in its reward program, platinum and diamond, will be eligible for the trips.

Uber doesn’t operate the flights itself; they’re handled by HeliFlite, a New Jersey-based charter helicopter company.

Uber users will see the helicopter option pop up in the app when they’re planning trips involving lower Manhattan, JFK International Airport or select areas with access to the West Side Highway. Trips must start or end in this designated zone to see the Copter option. Uber will coordinate with its car service to get passengers in lower Manhattan to the helipad. Trips to the airport can be booked the day of, like a typical Uber ride, or up to five days in advance.

Passengers on Uber Copter, which seats five people, can bring a carry-on bag and a personal bag. Tipping the helicopter pilots is not permitted.

Uber said it is open to expanding the Copter service to other areas. For now, it intends to use the flights to help learn about aerial ride-hailing and inform its future products.

The new service drew criticism from some New York leaders including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in June following a fatal helicopter crash that raised questions about air traffic safety in cities. Uber officials said they’ve teamed with HeliFlite because of its strong safety record.

Uber also said Tuesday its public transportation initiative in Denver led to 1,200 bus and rail tickets sold through the app since its May launch. The company wants to become the one-stop shop for transportation, whether a person travels by car, bike, scooter, bus, train or helicopter.

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