NYC’s wealthy are commuting from their pandemic pads — by chopper
To get a sense of how — and where — New York City’s financial executives are living these days, Rob Wiesenthal might be a better source than the Census Bureau.
Sometime around August, Wiesenthal, co-founder of a private helicopter and seaplane business, noticed an unusual travel pattern among clients, many with second homes in New York’s Hamptons and Hudson Valley, where they’d been living since pandemic-related lockdowns began in March.
Executives were suddenly filling planes into Manhattan on Friday mornings, an unusual choice for a clientele that stays out of the city on weekends. They also booked quick midweek jaunts, arriving early in the morning, with no luggage, and staying only a day, maybe two.
“Imagine if, when it got cold, all the birds started going north,” said Wiesenthal, chief executive of Blade Urban Air Mobility. “It made no sense.”
What he soon realized was this: Well-heeled New Yorkers who fled the city aren’t committed to staying away. But they’re not ready to move back, either. Schools are still largely online, and the cultural institutions and restaurants that give the city its buzz remain partially shuttered. That’s pushing even committed urbanites toward suburban retreats, with enough space to learn, work and play. But they still have apartments in the city, and offices are open — just enough reason to commute in now and again.
“I’m comfortable working in the city; I’m just not comfortable bringing my family and living here,” said Steven Klein, an executive at a real estate finance firm in Midtown. “I love New York, I grew up here, but the city right now is a little bit different.”
Klein’s wife and the children, who are attending their Manhattan middle school online, are living in their East Hampton summer home at least through the end of the year. They have space there to hold after-school activities and meet with friends outdoors. Klein returns to his Upper East Side apartment for about three days a week, so he can work at the office. He flies there and back on a seaplane or helicopter, a 35-minute trip that makes the East End of Long Island into a commutable suburb.
“A lot of the older guys got a little fed up with Zoom over the summer,” Klein said. “We want to set an example for the younger people who are comfortable going in that we’re comfortable going back in.”
Urban dwellers seeking a suburban retreat have pushed sales and prices to records in places like Westchester County and the Hamptons in recent months. Even far-flung areas in New York’s Dutchess and Putnam counties have seen an increase in home sales. Some purchasers are leaving the city for good, but a majority are acquiring “primary second homes,” where they’ll live and work most of the time while still maintaining an urban residence, brokers say.
Among Blade’s flight clients — largely senior-level executives — 80% had a place outside the city prior to the pandemic, Wiesenthal said. The rest found one recently, including more junior employees who gave up leases in Manhattan but still occasionally commute in.
“We know people who were paying $3,500 a month for a studio apartment, now paying $1,200 sharing a house with two people in the Hudson Valley,” Wiesenthal said. “They’re renting things that are less expensive, and that’s enabling them to fly.”
The exodus has created what Wiesenthal calls “synthetic suburbs” in areas not normally accessible for daily trips to the city. And he has tweaked his offerings to accommodate the sudden interest in vacation-home-to-office commuting. Last month, he started selling $965 monthly commuter passes between Manhattan and the Hamptons, which grant users one-way flights for an additional $295 each. September’s 200 passes sold out in a day, and October’s are gone too.
About 35% of clients commuting to the city from vacation homes make round-trip flights on the same day, with nine in 10 bringing no luggage, suggesting they’re coming in just to work, Wiesenthal said.
While he predicts that demand for monthly commuter passes will soon decline, Wiesenthal said his flights from New York to Miami and Aspen, Colo. — which start next month — are nearly full.