The vaunted, venture capital-fueled Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market and its promised electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxis won’t be a reality for mass (or minor) transit for years to come. But Tailwind Air already provides fast city to city service from urban cores in the northeast using seaplanes and it’s looking to grow.
The practice of using seaplanes, or more precisely land/water-capable floatplanes or “amphibians,” for scheduled air service pre-dates World War I and such services flourished in the 1920s/30s. While they largely disappeared in the latter half of the 20th century, commercial floatplane passenger carriers never went away in the northwest, Hawaii and the Caribbean.
Tailwind Air founder Alan Ram, an aerospace veteran and Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur, had them in mind when he established the company in 2012. It was about the time the first UAM startups began articulating the same logic Ram used to advance his company.
“He found the amount of time it takes to get between New York and Boston or Washington frustrating. Whether slow trains, congested roads or the headaches of commercial passenger service from airports, he saw agonizingly slow service,” says Peter Manice, Tailwind’s director of scheduled services and co-founder.
The company says it has managed to speed that up via floatplane, offering a transit time from a home or office door in Manhattan to Fan Pier Marina in Boston Harbor of two hours. For comparison, Tailwind cites an average airline shuttle (Delta, JetBlue) trip time of about 3.5 hours and a 4.5-hour average trip via Amtrak’s Acela train.
“We are 50% to 100% faster than any alternative between Manhattan and downtown Boston. Period.” Tailwind claims.
It’s a claim that would likely hold up against would-be UAM competitors, not because Tailwind’s Cessna Grand Caravan Amphibian EX floatplanes cruise at about 190 mph (a speed loaded eVTOL aircraft may will struggle to match) but because battery-electric air taxis like Joby’s five-passenger electric S4 have a best-case range of less than the 186 air-miles between New York and Boston and other city pairs.
Speed and convenience underpin Tailwind’s pricing strategy, which aims to be 1.5 to 2.5 times the price of a last-minute airline shuttle or Acela ticket. That makes for an average one-way ticket of $500, Manice says.
“We serve a premium business traveler, a high-end leisure traveler who places value on time savings.”
Tailwind currently operates three Grand Caravan Amphibians and is looking to add a fourth this year and to have six to seven in its fleet next year. The amphibian quality of Cessna’s Caravan is relevant because it offers Tailwind much needed flexibility to operate from land as well as water.
For all their convenience, passenger-carrying floatplanes don’t fly from the water at night or in a variety of weather conditions (wind/wave, fog, icing limits).
“When there’s fog in Boston, we’ll actually just land at Logan [Airport],” Manice says. The same alternate airport strategy holds for the other destinations Tailwind flies to and from including Plymouth and Provincetown, Mass.; Bridgeport Conn.; Westchester, N.Y.; and Long Island’s East Hampton, Shelter Island, Sag Harbor and Montauk.
Weather and the water are determinant factors in Tailwind’s scheduled service which runs from Boston and New York City three times daily every day except Saturday (2 times) from late March through mid-December. The airline’s Hamptons and other Massachusetts routes are generally active from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Until Tailwind pushed nearly year-round scheduled service, floatplane passenger carriers were strictly seasonal (summer) in the northeast and none flew into Boston Harbor.
“When it came to places like Boston, we were not allowed to land on the water,” Manice explains. “The [airspace] was under direct [air traffic] control of the tower at Logan International Airport all the way down to the water. We actually went through a three-year process and three years of investment to get approval from myriad government agencies to land there.”
Approval was granted last summer and Tailwind’s service to Boston from Manhattan began in August 2021. Despite the time and money spent to land on Boston Harbor, Manice says that Tailwind’s ethos “of plugging into existing infrastructure as much as possible” is key to its success. That’s a different route to UAM than companies financed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars like Volocopter or Wisk Aero have taken.
Without the need to perfect electric propulsion, battery and flight control technologies, or kickstart new infrastructure like vertiports and high-voltage recharging physical plants, Tailwind has been able to get off the water and operate commercially within a decade without unlimited funding.
While the company recognizes the development ongoing in the UAM space, Manice says they also understand that the arrival and scope of real-world eVTOL air taxi services remains up in the air. Some would-be UAM operators have actually looked at Tailwind as a case study he affirms.
The company’s practical experience could translate to the adoption of new platforms once they’re ready. Tailwind already has a link with Airflow whose nine passenger, M200 fixed wing short takeoff and landing (STOL) hybrid-electric or battery-electric aircraft is currently in development. Fittingly, Airflow’s plans call for an amphibious version of the M200.
For now, the company is happy with its small Caravan fleet which Manice says it operates at highest FAA Part 135 level with two pilots in each aircraft despite the turboprop Cessna’s clearance for single pilot operation. Passengers seem to like it as well he contends, raising awareness of Tailwind Air.
Word-of-mouth from happy customers who Manice says have found the service “game-changing” has provided the most attention so far. “We’re a small company,” Manice acknowledges. That translates to constrained resources for getting the word out. “We have a limited direct-marketing spend,” he says, “but we work hard for earned-media”.
The work has yielded dividends with Tailwind poised for growth on existing and new routes. “I have no doubt that frequency will be expanding,” Manice says. “We’re looking forward to the possibility [of service from] Washington DC.”
An announcement on service from DC should come late this month or early next he says. It won’t be the first time commercial floatplane service has taken off from the nation’s capital nor the first time it has been considered. Scheduled service from the Potomac River was pitched in the late 1980s though it wasn’t realized. Then as now, there were obstacles not the least of which is the FAA restricted airspace that’s been around the City since the September 11 attacks.
“We would love to see a seaplane landing in the Potomac River and taxiing right into the boat basin there,” Manice says but he adds that’s not likely any time soon. Instead, Tailwind will be inaugurating service from the “Washington DC area” which may mean taking off on the Potomac well south of the City in suburban Virginia or possibly from a waterway to the east in Maryland.
“We do not have direct competition but we expect it at some point,” Manice affirms. The company views the airlines and Amtrak as indirect competitors along with more expensive helicopter charter services and shorter-ranged helicopter shuttle services around New York City.
With the limits on water-borne operations in weather and at night, Manice says the small company recognizes it isn’t a default commuting option. “Not everybody wants to get into a seaplane. They want to be on terra firma or a giant airplane where they perceive safety.”
Nonetheless he says Tailwind thinks of itself as a “regional Concorde” with scheduled service planned beyond its expansion to the mid-Atlantic, eventually to Chicago, Florida and other southern markets. For now, it’s small-scale, practical UAM.
“It’s the best and fastest way to get from A to B in the northeast,” Manice asserts.