While some New Yorkers are lining up for security at JFK and LaGuardia airports, a select few are climbing into an eight-seat seaplane parked in the East River just off of 23rd Street. These amphibious aircraft are owned by Tailwind Air, a high-end travel company offering a mix of scheduled and chartered flights throughout the East Coast.
Flights between New York City and Boston are its bread and butter, but last month Tailwind started offering service to Washington, DC. During the summer months, it also flies passengers to vacation destinations such as the Hamptons and Provincetown. While the flight service has been around since 2012, its recent expansion has taken place against a backdrop of pervasive flight delays and cancellations at commercial airports.
"Obviously, we only serve a very niche area, but our business is growing," said Peter Manice, executive vice president of Tailwind Air. "Adoption is growing. Total volume of passengers and average fare paid are all going in the right direction."
Tailwind's average customer, said Manice, is a "high-value business traveler" who is frequently commuting between Boston and New York. For the vacation routes, he added, it's often people who own two homes and are frequently commuting between them.
The company sees itself as part of an emerging trend in urban air mobility, where high-net-worth customers are increasingly willing to shell out to avoid busy commercial airports or even commuter train lines such as Amtrak's Acela Express.
"For customers, it's a matter of placing value on time savings, which is ultimately what we deliver," Manice said. "We're really taking that group of people who appreciate and value the speed and convenience that comes with avoiding airports, train stations, crowds, long security lines, and check-ins."
That social premium is crucial because Tailwind still has a relatively small operation compared to commercial airlines and even some charter services. As the company grows, Manice said the service could become more accessible, but there's a limit on how much it can lower the price for such a specialized offering. "We're never going to be Spirit Airlines," he said. "That's just sort of a reality of the environment we operate in."
Right now, Tailwind is "very much an insider option," said Manice. Relatively few people even know about it, let alone have the funds to pay $500 for a trip to Beantown. But the company is banking on the space becoming bigger and more competitive, as the appeal of quick and convenient urban air mobility grows.
Indeed, commercial airlines are anticipating this future as well. United Airlines last month dropped a $10 million downpayment on the purchase of 100 electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles from Archer Aviation Inc. These electric-powered aircraft are designed to take off and land in dense urban areas, and they're often pitched as a way to access commercial airports more quickly. United Airlines also sees eVTOL adoption as a move toward decarbonization.
"We are witnessing an inflection point where consumers, businesses, and policymakers are all aligned to prioritize technology that reduces the impact of climate change," said Michael Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, the airline's investment fund.
Though many of these companies remain in the testing phase, regulatory approval could be on the horizon. Billy Nolen, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, back in June said at least two companies in the eVTOL or urban air mobility (UAM) space could get certified to carry passengers by 2024.
In one sense, Tailwind is much more old-school. Even its main seaplane, the Cessna Caravan Amphibian, has a basic design that goes back to the 1980s, and the company has consciously marketed the experience as a kind of throwback to an earlier period of regional jet-setting. However, Manice said the company sees itself as part of this trend.
"I certainly think that when it comes to urban air mobility, there is a significant evolution on the horizon with some of the new vehicles and electric aircraft that are in view over the next five to 10 years," Manice said. "We hope to be one of those options as well and perhaps early adopters of this technology as well."