Sky taxi service booms over Sao Paulo

February 12th, 2009 - 11:14 am ICT by IANS  

Sao Paulo, Feb 12 (DPA) In the streets of Sao Paulo, traffic barely moves in rush hour. The endless stream of cars moves at a snail’s pace on 10-lane avenues. Some six million cars, buses, motorcycles and trucks daily plough through the city of 20 million people, and an estimated 800 new vehicles join the frenzy every day.

On bad days, officials estimate traffic jams reach lengths of more than 220 km. The few underground lines and the 15,000 buses are full. No wonder people with the necessary cash evade the streets by taking to the air.

Sao Paulo is a city with the most helicopter taxis in the world and the highest concentration of helipads.

In almost one-minute intervals, helicopters of all sizes - one, two and six-seaters take off and land at Campo de Marte in northern Sao Paulo. When Jorge Bitar Neto started his service with one helicopter 10 years ago, demand was relatively low.

“However, we grew with the economic boom in the last few years and extended our fleet to 10 jets and helicopters,” said Neto, owner of the company Helimarte Taxi Aero.

From 1999 to 2007 his air taxi took off 10,000 times, chauffeuring business people with more money than time to their appointments.

“Since then, we have nearly doubled the number to 20,000 flights.”

About 420 helicopters are registered in Sao Paulo, the economic heart of Brazil. They whirr diligently to the tops of skyscrapers to pick up or drop off customers. There are nearly 300 landing pads in the city and they appear on a separate city guide with a photo and coordinates.

Helimarte charges between 800 and 9,000 Brazilian real ($348 to $3,916) per hour depending on the helicopter’s furnishings and size and power of its engine. From an altitude of 250 metres and travelling at over 200 km per hour, passengers can thank their lucky stars that they are not caught up in the snarl down below.

On the ground, things are more leisurely. Short trips become one-and-a-half hour journeys, long enough for the driver and his passenger to form a friendship. But time is precious for people who are in a hurry. The average speed during main travel periods has dropped about 32 percent from 25 km per hour 10 years ago to 17 km per hour now, traffic expert Jaime Waisman of the university of Sao Paulo, said in Brazilian media.

Only daredevil motorcycle couriers can shave minutes off. At breakneck speed, they race through narrow gaps in the traffic, dodging rear-view mirrors and cars and changing lanes with breathtaking acrobatics. Almost every day, a motorcyclist dies on the streets of Sao Paulo.

But traffic is also getting heavy in the skies over Sao Paulo. The helicopters share the airspace with planes flying in and out of the city airport Congonhas at a rate of about one every three minutes. Helicopters and jet pilots use a different frequency to communicate.

“Sao Paulo is the only city in the world that has a special helicopter air traffic control centre to guide them,” said Neto. This has led to a new clientele that he hopes to attract with a romantic package. He plans to charge couples the equivalent of 640 euros for a helicopter ride, including champagne for the lovers, to a five-star hotel where they are picked up in the morning.

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