Mayor Seeks to Make Lower Manhattan Hub for Electro-Copters
Mayor Eric Adams on Monday, November 13, announced a plan to transform the Downtown Manhattan Heliport (located on the East River waterfront at Pier 6, near the intersection of Coenties Slip and South Street) into the nation’s first aerodrome for electric helicopters, while also creating a logistics center for freight deliveries brought to the community by ferry.
The City is issuing a new request for proposals (RFP), seeking an operator for the City-owned heliport who will transform it with supporting infrastructure for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, as well as last-mile and maritime freight delivery. The emerging new field of eVTOL aeronautics is centered around an all-electric variant on traditional “vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft, which ascend and touch down like helicopters, but cruise in a manner similar to fixed-wing planes. Although half a dozen startups are developing prototypes, none of these designs have yet received government approval to carry passengers, or operate in populated areas.
In anticipation of regulatory approval (which the Mayor’s team expects “as early as 2025, with commercial flights to start shortly after”), the Adams administration is requiring that the winner of the RFP pledge to revamp the heliport’s infrastructure with high-capacity chargers, along with the utility upgrades these will necessitate. Also mandated by the RFP is development of a facility for last-mile micro-distribution, to create and support a “marine highway” network. This will entail installing ferry slips at the heliport, for the delivery of cargo, rather than passengers.
“Today, we are taking sustainability to the sky and our streets, and New Yorkers can feel the electricity in the air in our City as we electrify our heliport infrastructure,” Mr. Adams said at a press conference held at Pier 6. “Our vision for the Downtown Manhattan Heliport will create the world’s first heliport with infrastructure for electric-powered aircraft and put this public asset to work for New Yorkers as a hub for sustainable transportation and local deliveries. We will not only put New York City at the cutting edge of sustainable flight technology while addressing a persistent quality-of-life issue with helicopter noise, but also get trucks off the road and make our streets safer.”
“Lower Manhattan is not just a vital hub for the City’s economic activity, but it is also a thriving and vibrant community that tens of thousands of New Yorkers call home,” remarked Tammy Meltzer, chair of Community Board 1. “Addressing the chronic noise complaints from helicopters while making the air cleaner through modern green aviation and reduced truck traffic on neighborhood streets is a win/win for Lower Manhattan residents, workers, tourists, and the City.” (The “marine highway” part of the plan announced Monday tracks closely to multiple resolutions enacted by CB1 urging the City to inaugurate freight deliveries to Lower Manhattan via ferry, to reduce congestion and pollution caused by trucks on local streets.)
“Today, as the administration showcases visionary plans for the Downtown Manhattan Heliport and the potential of eVTOL technology, we are integrating the marine highway into our strategy,” said “New” New York executive director B.J. Jones. “By better leveraging this harbor landing and strengthening critical freight movement on waterways, we are forging a more sustainable transportation.”
“For too long, loud, low-flying, nonessential helicopters have been a major source of reduced quality of life for New Yorkers” said Melissa Elstein, chair of Stop the Chop NY/NJ, an advocacy group that has long sought to limit flights at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. “The vision of a ‘quieter and more sustainable’ multimodal port with alternatives to fossil-fuel based helicopters and as a ‘hub for sustainable transportation’ is an important first step.”
Monday’s event also included a showcase landing at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport by two eVTOL aircraft, one each from startups Joby and Volocopter. (Underscoring the still-experimental nature of these prototypes, multiple fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars were parked nearby, apparently as a precaution.)
The hurdles remain daunting, however. Charging eVTOL aircraft quickly requires what are known as Level 3 electrical connections, each powerful enough to supply current to more than 250 homes simultaneously. The 12-helicopter capacity of the heavily trafficked Downtown Manhattan Heliport will likely require at least half a dozen of these.
In spite of the fact that commercial operation of eVTOL aircraft appears to be several years away, at a minimum, multiple firms are positioning themselves to exploit what some believe will be a transformative technology. A partnership announced last year between United Airlines and startup Archer Aviation boasts that it will bring regular air taxi service (connecting Lower Manhattan to Newark Airport) to the facility in 2025. And Archer competitor Joby Aviation announced (also in 2022) a similar partnership with Delta Airlines, which will take passengers from Manhattan to LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports. The latter plan does not specify which of Manhattan’s three existing heliports the service will use, although the Lower Manhattan facility appears to be a likely contender.