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When Airport Hopping in New York Was Cheaper, Faster, and a Little More Dangerous

New York Airways was a helicopter airline, founded originally as a mail and cargo carrier in 1949, then in 1953 it transitioned to become the first scheduled helicopter airline to carry passengers in the United States.

Headquartered at LaGuardia Airport, the airline's main service was to shuttle air travelers between the city and the region's biggest airports (Newark, LaGuardia, Idlewild), bypassing congested roads and lengthy subway rides.

A 1962 promotional film for the service titled "The Skyline Route" shows us the airline's more optimistic era, a period that came before the crashes and energy crises that led to its demise by 1979:

In 1962, riders could jump from Newark to Wall Street by helicopter for just $6 ($46.61 in today's dollars) as opposed to an $8 cab ride ($61.88 today), or from Newark to Idlewild for $9 ($69.61 today) instead of paying $19 for a cab ($146.96 in today's dollars).

As the film shows, New York Airways would eventually provide a Midtown service as well from the roof of the PanAm (now MetLife) Building, still under construction at the time of the video, by 1965.
 

"Vibration-free and smooth in flight," the film's narrator also boasts about the company's safety record while a young boy waves to one of the NYA's pilots. New York Airways' actual safety record eventually led to the service's demise. On October 14, 1963, one New York Airways helicopter crashed on its way from Idlewild Airport to Newark via Wall Street. The crash, blamed on a mechanical failure, killed all three passengers and the three crew members on board.

As for its Midtown helipad, service ceased in 1968 before resuming again for a short time in 1977. But on May 16 of that year, the landing gear on one of its helicopters failed while boarding passengers on the building's roof. The helicopter then rolled on its side, its rotor blades killing four and injuring one more in the process. The broken blade then fell down the 808-foot tall building, killing a pedestrian and injuring another. After the accident, the heliport was closed for good.

New York Airlines, already hurt by rising fuel costs from the 1973 and 1979 energy crises, saw its reputation irreparably damaged after another fatal accident that killed three and injured 13 people. The airline never flew again after its last crash, filing for bankruptcy one month later in May, 1979.

Despite these darker moments, New York Airways was a popular choice for thousands of air travelers who needed jump from airport to airport, or from downtown to the airport, without the hassles that existed on and under ground. In fact, its ridership increased from 68,000 in 1957 to 268,000 by 1970.

Some of its tandem rotor fleet still survive some 40 years later, now owned by a private aerospace company in Oregon.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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