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I've observed helicopters being used often

  • in the military
  • for medical flights
  • for other special use purposes, such as sightseeing and news reporting

Why aren't there any commercial passenger transport helicopter flights? Or are there any examples of this? Are airplanes simply that much more efficient?

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    $\begingroup$ Just BTW, the most-helicopter-used airport in the world is I believe Aberdeen, due to the flights out to oil rigs. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Mar 25 '15 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ It's simple costs. Helicopters are far more expensive than airplanes to operate. $\endgroup$ – GdD Mar 25 '15 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ Can't really give this as authoritative answer, but isn't safety / stability also a (minor) issue? A properly trimmed plane will keep going more or less straight and level if the pilot takes his hands off the controlls. A helicopter will try to kill you if you do that, becuase it doesn't have a "stable" state. Or did I get this wrong? $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Mar 26 '15 at 10:07
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Airplanes are much more efficient, much faster and scale better.

Helicopters are limited to around 150 knots because when flying forward the tip of the advancing blade must not exceed the speed of sound while the retreating blade must still move aft fast enough to produce lift.

Helicopters are also difficult to make large, because for efficiency the rotor disk needs to be large, but the diameter is again limited by the tip speed having to remain subsonic. And the material requirements to make the blades strong enough without making them too large to keep drag low.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 I never realized the blade tips on opposite sides move at different speeds in the air. $\endgroup$ – Mehrdad Mar 25 '15 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ The first statement is biased. Airplanes and helis have different mission profiles. You wouldn't use even an RJ for a 10-15 mile flight, and you wouldn't use a heli for transcontinental. New helis are being developed (Bell X2) that fly at 250kts. And it depends on what you mean by "large": static3.businessinsider.com/image/… $\endgroup$ – rbp Mar 25 '15 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ What happens if the blades go supersonic? $\endgroup$ – Mårten Mar 25 '15 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Mårten the helicopter generates a continuous sonic boom; which makes normal operation seem quiet. I think you'd also get very high stress levels on the part of the blade that is barely sub-sonic similar to what a military jet gets hammered with briefly as it transitions to supersonic flight; except that it would be a continuous load. You'd probably need stronger/heavier blades to avoid them failing as a result. $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Mar 25 '15 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Mårten ... plus it adds a lot of drag so it would be extremely inefficient. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Mar 25 '15 at 14:35
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Jan Hudec's answer has already detailed why helicopters are not widely used for mass transportation or have been scaled up to ferry passengers more often.

The few exceptions exist where landing space is limited and the helicopter's maneuverability is more advantageous.

Offshore Oil & Gas Rigs

Kittiwake landing
(Image Source: www.wn.com)

Where transport by ship is not fast enough or not possible due to heavy swell, the use of helicopters allows quick access to the offshore platforms.

New York Helicopter Taxi

enter image description here
(Image Source: www.americanbestgetaways.com)

The New York Helicopter Services allow quick access to the airports around New York for business travelers who would otherwise take more time to arrive in Manhattan.

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Spending years being ferried off and on shore by helicopters, I'd say the biggest problem is noise. Even with a pair of decent ear defenders on it's not exactly quiet.

OK, so a commercial 'air bus' is never going to match a Mercedes or even a plush executive helicopter for levels of NVH, but there's nothing particularly attractive about the experience other than getting somewhere much quicker than you might otherwise.

The noise also means the 'go anywhere' ability of helicopters is severely curtailed if noise means they can't actually go many places.

Add to that the high cost and it's pretty much a non-starter except for edge cases as in SentryRaven's answer where an increase of speed of an order of magnitude or more, or the circumvention of otherwise impossible access outweigh these concerns.

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  • $\begingroup$ Levels of whoozy whatsit? $\endgroup$ – Sean Oct 17 '18 at 20:44
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There are a few commercial passenger flights, but not so many because of the costs.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are about 500 registered helicopters, with about 700 flights per day, which include transporting CEOs and politicians from one part of the city to another. Several factors contribute to this:

  • Frequent traffic issues leading to unpredictable delays in major roads;
  • Presence of an elite having enough money to afford such flights;
  • Availability of a sufficient number of helipads.

Some might also cite safety concerns, but this is unlikely to play a major role.

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There was regular helicopter service between Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland during the mid-2000's. It was mainly used by business travellers between the two cities. I think the flight time was something like 20 minutes and the heliport was on both sides conveniently in the middle of the city. The regular plane service has a flight time of 30 minutes with additional time spent for airport procedures and taxi rides to and from the airport, so there definetely was a business case there.

However there was an unfortunate crash and the company never quite recovered from that. They use their copters for oil rig flights now, if I am not mistaken. See Wikipedia Copterline Flight 103.

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When I took flying lessons, I looked into a helicopter certification. The rental cost was 2-3 times more than a fixed wing aircraft at the time. I don't know what it costs now, but I assume it's still really expensive.

There are passenger helicopters, usually used by corporations or very wealthy individuals. Some companies maintain their own fleet or charter when needed (which is probably cheaper).

One company I worked for early in my career maintained an intra-site fleet of helicopters (if your manager would approve it and the weather held, an hour drive became a 20 minute helicopter ride). I never got to use it because this was one of the first things to go when the company went into decline and needed to cut costs.

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    $\begingroup$ You're from NH. Did you work for DEC? I worked there from 80-83, and got to take the copter twice. $\endgroup$ – rbp Mar 25 '15 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ Many moons ago, I did. I was there in the late 90s right as Compaq bought them out. $\endgroup$ – Tim Mar 25 '15 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ is that the fleet you're talking about? $\endgroup$ – rbp Mar 25 '15 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah - I remember hearing about it, seeing pictures and the helipads, I think I saw one land once. Never got a chance to take it, though. It's the only company I ever worked for that had their own fleet. You don't see this much here in the northeast... $\endgroup$ – Tim Mar 25 '15 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ Hah. I missed getting to take the DEC copter by about ten minutes back in the mid 80s. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Mar 25 '15 at 14:20

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