The financial dynamics of selling helicopter rides.
I went down to Goodyear, AZ yesterday to offer helicopter rides at the Goodyear Balloon & Air Spectacular. This was my second year doing rides at the event; last year I did them at Glendale as a subcontractor for another helicopter operator. This year, when the event was moved to Goodyear (a Phoenix-managed airport), the paperwork requirements were more stringent. The other company couldn’t get their paperwork together on time. They dropped out. I had all my paperwork in order. I did the show without them.
First I need to say something about the show. Formerly known as the Thunderbird Balloon & Air Classic (and still run by a company of the same name), the event is a combination balloon gathering and air show. The balloons, which can only fly early in the morning or in the evening, do their thing in their time slot. I wrote last year about walking among the balloons during the nighttime glow and about arriving at the airport as the balloons were departing at dawn. It was an incredible experience. Oddly enough, most people don’t go to the show for the balloons. They go for the air show which goes on during the day. There are aerobatic displays, war birds, F-16s, and this year, the Blue Angels. On the ground, there are food vendors, car and motorcycle dealers, navy recruiters, carnival rides, and souvenir sellers. There is literally something for the whole family. And although it ain’t cheap to attend — $15/adult, less for children and seniors — it’s a great event for a family to attend together: outdoors, surrounded by history, technology, and carnival food.
This is an extremely professionally run event, with excellent management and crowd control. The entertainment is top notch and the announcer is incredible. There’s no shortage of staff members to help with a problem. And the Air Boss, who works behind the scenes with the pilots and airspace, is safety-conscious, reasonable, helpful, and well…professional. I cannot stress what a pleasure it is to work at an event that’s so well run.
Unfortunately, the new venue at Goodyear had a bit of a dust problem. Instead of being on pavement like the vendors were at Glendale last year, they were on dirt. Which turned to dust. Even the water truck couldn’t keep up with it. Thank heaven it wasn’t windy like it always is in Kingman for the Mohave County Fair.
And unfortunately for us, my landing zone was about a mile away, near the main terminal building. (On concrete, thank heaven.) So we had to provide transportation from the ticket sales area to the LZ and back. The folks I was supposed to fly for were going to provide transportation via golf cart. We didn’t have a suitable golf cart, so we used Mike’s truck.
I say “we” because when I realized I’d be doing the event without the other helicopter company, I had to get together a full ground crew. For me, a full ground crew consists of three people: a money person to sell tickets, answer questions, and hold the money and two loaders who do safety briefings and escort passengers to and from the helicopter. (We do hot loading, like most helicopter operators do, and I don’t want anyone walking unescorted or unsupervised near the helicopter while the blades are turning.) In a pinch, with a secure LZ, I can do with one experienced loader (my husband, Mike), but I really like two. It speeds up the loading/unloading process by having one crew member on each side of the helicopter.
Our great ground crew: Darlene and Dave (photos by Dave and Darlene).
I should point out one thing here about the R44 helicopter. The main rotor blades are 10 to 12 feet off the ground (depending on RPM and rotor droop) so the possibility of someone getting hit on the head by the blades is remote, especially at 68% RPM, which I maintain during loading/unloading. That’s one less thing to worry about when hot loading.
Because the LZ was so far from the rest of the venue and there were aerobatic displays going on while I was giving rides, I couldn’t fly past or around the venue to attract future passengers. That turned out to not be a problem. We had a steady stream of riders for our 8-10 minute rides. And, when the Blue Angels were done flying at about 4:15 PM, I started up and flew just about nonstop until 7:15 PM.
Here’s where the finances come into the picture. Last year, the other helicopter operator charged $45/person for 10-minute rides. Of that, I got $35, which I thought was a fair price for the ride. They did the money stuff and provided transportation to/from the LZ, which was about 1/4 mile from the ticket booth that year. (Easy walking distance, but who likes to walk?) They also provided one ground crew member, but since they were flying a helicopter, too, he mostly dealt with loading/unloading that helicopter. So Mike came along and took care of my passengers.
At $45/person, I flew 131 people last year over a 3-day period. To date, that’s my second-best gig, surpassed only by 2005 at the Mohave County Fair (150). I personally could not believe that so many people were willing to lay out $45/person for a ride. To put it in perspective, for about $120 a person can get a 25-minute helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon with Papillon. That’s a more memorable flight than 8-10 minutes over Sun City.
Yet this year, when I went to the Mohave County Fair and tried to sell 8-10 minute flights for $35/person, I had very few takers. I had to resort to Plan B, which offered 3-4 minute rides around the fair for $15. That kept me busy. In Congress, I did 5-minute rides for $20 around Congress. I had a line for 3 hours straight and probably could have sold the same rides for $25 without losing a single passenger.
So what I learned during the year (or thought I learned) was that I could keep flying if I priced the rides at a price most people would consider cheap. I want to keep flying. Sitting on the ground, spinning my blades while I wait for a passenger burns fuel without earning revenue or paying my ground crew. The problem is, if I make the rides too cheap, I don’t make any money. Duh.
At yesterday’s event, I offered the rides at $35/person, which was what I would have gotten if I’d flown with the other company anyway. I’m not greedy, but I do have loan payments to make. The result was a steady stream of passengers who couldn’t believe how cheap the rides were.
So what’s expensive in Kingman, AZ is cheap in Goodyear, AZ.
Our flight path, in case you’re interested, left Goodyear airport heading southeast. I flew straight down to the Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), where they have NASCAR events, and came back to the airport. There were cars on the track (not NASCAR) for much of the day, and people riding quads and fishing along the Gila River, which we crossed in two places. At night — because I flew for over an hour after sunset — I flew more to the east, trying to stay in a well-lighted area and give my passengers something to see. At night, the city is a blanket of lights in every color and it really doesn’t matter what you’re looking at. It’s just so darn pretty from the air.
Although it was a 3-day event, I missed the first day due to a miscommunication. (Long story and please don’t ask me to tell it because I’m still pretty pissed off about it.) Yesterday was the second day and we did pretty well. Unfortunately, there are limitations on when I can fly. Those limitations are imposed by the Air Boss, who is basically an air traffic controller during the event. Keep in mind that the air show part of the event runs all day long and has many performers. Some of them simply don’t like operating while a helicopter is making flights in and out of the airspace. And in other instances, the Air Boss himself might consider my operations a hazard while other performers are on. So throughout the day, I’d be asked by the Air Boss to stay on the ground. These stoppages could be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. They broke up the flying day, limiting the number of people I could fly.
This happened last year, too, but there weren’t as many of these breaks so they didn’t affect me as much. This year, they really put a damper on things. People who showed up at the booth at 1:30 PM, ready to fly, were told they had to wait until 4 PM. Not everyone wanted to wait. And I certainly didn’t want to sit in the dusty booth waiting for the green light. But when 4:15 rolled along, I started flying again — for 3 hours straight.
Unfortunately, we had to skip today at the show. That’s not so bad. Mike is fighting a cold and he needs the rest. And I’m still exhausted from flying so long after nightfall — it takes more concentration, at least for me, and it really wipes me out.
Now if you’re doing all the math and coming up with some really big numbers for our ride revenue, remember a few things. It takes (and costs) more than just fuel to operate a helicopter. My insurance alone costs $60/hour (based on my current 200-hours per year flight level). And then there’s the reserve for the overhaul my helicopter will need at 2,200 hours — that currently costs $185,000, which is about $85/hour. There’s regular maintenance (at $50 to $75/hour), fuel (at about $4/gallon), oil (at about $5/quart), and hangar rent (at several hundred dollars a month). There’s additional costs to comply with service bulletins (SBs) and airworthiness directives (ADs). There’s advertising with signs, banners, brochures, and business cards. There’s business licenses and drug testing program fees and credit card acceptance fees. And there’s state and local sales tax, which must be paid out of every qualifying revenue hour — including rides. (Although we charged $35/person, $2.68 of that goes to Maricopa County and the City of Goodyear with its total 8.3% sales tax rate.) On an event like this, there’s also the cost of the ground crew, which must be transported, housed (in some instances), fed, and paid. There’s also the cost of operating the helicopter to get from its home base to the event location — cost that has no revenue associated with it. And let’s not even talk about the cost of equipment such as shade structures, tables, and chairs for a booth; a camper that can sleep up to 8 for overnight events; and a truck to haul all of this stuff around on the ground.
As you can see, the math isn’t as simple as saying 60 rides x $35 per ride – fuel costs = big profit. That’s the formula some passengers try to use. I only wish it were that simple.
What did I learn about this past weekend’s event? Confirm and reconfirm all the information I get. Stay involved in the setup process from the beginning. Don’t miss any meetings. Have a ground crew ready and waiting if needed.
And if they want to pay $45 per person for a ride, let ’em.
Many thanks to Darlene and Dave, Ground Crew Extraordinaire, for taking photos at the show and sharing them with me so I could put them here.