Defining urban travel in 1950s: the story of New York Airways
We all hate traffic. Nobody likes sitting in their cars or public transport for hours every week just to get to their destination.
But one company provided a very obvious, yet outrageous solution – flying over traffic. On this day, July 8, 1953, New York Airways began its helicopter passenger services. The first route was between New York International Airport (now called John F. Kennedy International Airport, JFK), New York LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark Airport (EWR), served with a military converted Sikorsky S-55.
Right circumstances for New York Airways
In 1953, American citizens owned over 56 million motor vehicles in the United States, according to old documents found in the Department of Transport archives. Over 6 million of them were registered in New York and New Jersey, locations of the three airports that New York Airways started serving in 1953.
Air travel was picking up pace as well. Just a year before, in 1952, BOAC started the first commercial flight of a passenger aircraft with a jet engine – the Comet.
R.L. Cummings Jr, the president of the company, used the opportunity perfectly – he offered passengers the option to transfer between airports and go above traffic. And to do so quickly, as the journey between the three New York airports took just an hour and thirteen minutes, according to an old Flight magazine.
New York Airways had its fair share of supporters. Flyers enjoyed the opportunity to travel on scenic routes that overlooked Manhattan, the Liberty Statue and other New York monuments. The flight from the Pan Am building at the heart of Manhattan to JFK airport took just seven minutes and passengers paid only $7 for the journey. Adjusted for inflation, the ticket would set you back $56 in today’s prices.
At the same time, it had a lot of opposition – residents were angry about the noise from the rotors of the helicopters. Safety was a concern too – in an event of a crash, not only the passengers and the crew of a helicopter would be endangered, but pedestrians on the ground as well.
Safety concerns came to fruition in 1977, when five people died after a New York Airways helicopter crashed following a fractured right front landing gear.
Eventually, in 1979, New York Airways shut down forever. The company filed bankruptcy after a deadly accident the same year that claimed the lives of three passengers.
A cultural icon
When the Pan Am building opened in 1963 with a heliport on its roof that became operational in 1965, the New York Airways and Pan Am names became an integral part of the culture within the city.
Even a Hollywood film, Coogan’s Bluff featured the helicopter ride onboard New York Airways with a young Clint Eastwood, portraying a veteran deputy sheriff that’s on the lookout for an escapee.
Passengers also enjoyed a fairly low price on the helicopter ride, a ride that was much faster and cheaper than a taxi.
The Port Authority of New York and New York Airways had huge plans for the future of helicopter travel within the Big Apple at an age where commercial jetliners were just making their first steps. New heliports in Brooklyn, The Battery, East Side of Manhattan, Staten Island and Newark were in the plans.
Anyhow, New York Airways became both a cultural icon and an inspiration for others. Companies like Sabena, Los Angeles Airways, British European Airways and Chicago Helicopter Airways started their services months within the first flight of New York Airways. All of these companies became the pioneers of urban mobility, revolutionizing the way people reached their destinations within cities.
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