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Kobe Bryant crash puts spotlight on helicopter air-taxi market

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Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles basketball star who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, loved to travel by chopper. Most Americans, including those rich enough to afford that mode of air transport, have been less enthusiastic.

One reason could be safety. Personal or private rides accounted for more than a quarter of all fatal helicopter accidents in the U.S. over the past decade despite making up only 3% of total chopper traffic, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), an industry organization focused on improving safety.

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In 2019, a total of 51 people were killed in helicopter crashes in the U.S., down from 55 the previous year, according to the USHST. It had been just 30 days since the last fatal helicopter crash in the U.S. — a sightseeing flight in Hawaii that killed six people on December 27. 

Those numbers encompass all helicopter flights, including firefighting, police, air ambulances and training routes. In all, helicopters logged more than 3.2 million flight hours last year, with just 3.5 accidents per 100,000 hours flown. 

Still, traveling by helicopter is less safe than by commercial airline, recent data show. Globally, there were 534 deaths involving large commercial aircraft around the world in 2019, including one of the two 737 Max flights — or 0.00018 fatal incidents per 100,000 flight hours. That compares with 0.72 deaths per 100,000 fight hours for helicopters in 2019. That is up slightly from a five-year average of 0.68.

Indeed, the Helicopter Association International, the industry's largest trade group, has long pushed to reduce the number of crashes. Its goal is to have a year in the near future when there are no helicopter fatalities.

That hasn't stopped a number of transportation startups from launching so-called air taxi services that rely on helicopters. Privately owned Blade Urban Air Mobility in New York has dropped the price of a one-way helicopter trip from Manhattan to local airports to $195 per passenger. In the past, the company had charged $3,000 per flight, thought that bought the whole chopper, which seats six. 

Ride-hailing company Uber last year launched a similar service that charges $205 for a copter flight between a downtown Manhattan heliport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, with the price including an Uber X ride to the airport. Blade in October launched the $195 flights for local trips to Los Angeles International Airport, as well as flights to the Staples Arena. The company also operates regular flights in San Francisco.

For $495, Blade this weekend will fly travelers from a Miami beach hotel to a spot near Hard Rock Stadium, site of Super Bowl LIV. Tickets for the ride, which takes about six minutes, are sold out.

Still, one expert said lower-cost helicopter services have experienced mixed success. Although Blade has seen a double-digit jump in passengers, that increase hasn't been enough to offset the drop in prices. The company has not added additional helicopters to its fleet.

The New York Times reported last year that helicopter takeoff and landings in the New York region were up more than 80% in the first five months of 2019. That may be an "only in New York" phenomenon: USHST statistics point to a more modest 10% growth in U.S. chopper traffic for the year as a whole.

Bryant himself was a frequent helicopter flyer. According to USA Today, after becoming a star with the Los Angeles Lakers it was common for him to chopper from his home to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. That habit continued after his retirement. The paper reported that Bryant's helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76, had flown 42 trips in January alone before crashing on Sunday in the Los Angeles hills.

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Blade's and Uber's helicopter services technically qualify as commercial air taxi services rather than private flights. The air taxi category has a much better safety record than purely private flights, accounting for just 8% of total fatalities, though still higher than its 5% of total helicopter flight hours. Helicopters have fewer flight restrictions than jets and are allowed to fly at much lower heights. Uber has never had a helicopter crash. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment.

In 2018, a helicopter operated by a New Jersey-based sightseeing tour company crashed into the East River, killing all five passengers. The pilot survived. The helicopter was flying with the doors removed. Since then New York City has limited the number of non-essential helicopter travel.

Blade, like the Los Angeles Police Department, had grounded all of its L.A. flights on Sunday morning. A spokesperson for the company, which like Uber has never had an accident on a passenger flightsays it doesn't fly unless the cloud cover is at least 750 feet. The cloud ceiling on Sunday morning during Bryant's fatal flight in Los Angeles was 300 feet. 

Blade also doesn't fly the type of helicopter Bryant was flying without two pilots. Bryant's craft only had one. 

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