Even though they typically only fly a few hundred or a few thousand feet above the surface of the earth, helicopters have a way of making passengers feel like they are on top of the world. They are definitely well above the traffic congestion of popular sporting events and crowded thoroughfares. There is no place those two frustrations will collide more visibly this summer than the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazilian cities, especially Rio and São Paulo, are well known for helicopter operations bypassing gridlocked streets. These cities have some of the worst driving conditions in the world on regular days. Although operations have fluctuated with recent economic and political unrest in Brazil, São Paulo typically sees about 700 helicopter flights per working day, with nearly 500 helicopters registered in the vicinity.
On June 13, 2016, Uber began offering rides on helicopters in Sâo Paulo as part of their month-long “beta” testing for a service called UberCOPTER, which was also tested during last year’s college football championship game in Dallas. The rides in Sâo Paulo, offered on air charter operators’ Airbus helicopters, were offered for as little as $63, but a week later the fares increased more than 150%. The president of the Brazilian Association of Pilots of Helicopters has predicted that the fees charged by UberCopter are not sustainable.
Even though casual tourists won’t be arriving by air chariot, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of helicopters hovering around the park. A fleet of 90 helicopters is expected to be used for air space control, safety, rescue missions and “image control.” Only a few VIPs have been pre-authorized for helicopter landings.
That leaves Olympic athletes and patrons alike dependent on more traditional modes of transportation. Most will arrive by overcoming the vehicular gridlock, which hopefully won’t prove to be an Olympic event all its own. The few who go through strict security measures will be able to fly by helicopter or private jet into a limited access airport, some 10 nautical miles away from the Olympic park. Santos Dumont Airport (SDU) officials are expecting as many as 800 private aircraft to visit during the 2016 Olympic Games, although they also announced yesterday that through August 18, the airport would be closed for incoming and departing flights from 12:30 PM to 4:30 PM so that air traffic does not affect Olympic sailing competitions.
Additionally, Rio airspace will be strictly managed for the duration of the Olympics, with only preauthorized aircraft allowed within 15 nautical miles of the Olympic park. (See chart below.) Inside the red and yellow fly zones, general aviation aircraft will only be allowed for transport of Chiefs of State and VIPs previously vetted. Outside of the restricted areas, Global Aviation is providing helicopter charter services (globaltaxiaereo.com.br).
As far as UberCopter goes, while we all would prefer to travel that way when we’re late for a date, or a dinner, or an Olympic event, the cost is likely prohibitive, and the airspace is controlled in each country by the equivalent of that country’s Federal Aviation Administration—not exactly a system conducive to supporting the free market system that has made Uber successful on the ground. Furthermore, inside sources at Uber indicated that it’s more a part of the PR plan than the strategic business plan within the company.
Airspace and landing restrictions, as well as rules protecting safety in commercial operations of aircraft, tend to keep us grounded, but no matter the security measures and delays, flying private still beats flying commercial—and the bird’s eye view from those lucky enough to be in a helicopter will be spectacular.