New York

Testing Tailwind Air’s seaplane flights from D.C. to New York

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Eighty minutes in the air, plus a splash in the East River, and I was in Manhattan.

Tailwind Air’s seaplanes are the latest mode of transportation to connect the Washington area with New York City, and the amphibious flights remove much of the fear associated with traveling north. Passengers won’t get caught in traffic snarls (car, bus) or relegated to the wrong district or state (commercial air). Travel time is also quicker than by train, including Acela, which takes just under three hours.

While a seaplane ticket is expensive, with basic fares starting at $395, the aerial view is exclusive to private planes and birds. Plus, the water landing will turn jaded heads in New Yorkers.

On an afternoon suitable for flying and boating, I boarded a Tailwind seaplane to see if the trip to New York City could be as appealing as the destination.

Fly by plane, land by sea

Tailwind Air was founded in 2012, but the airline only recently started offering amphibious flights. The company flies eight-seat Cessna Caravans, which are popular in Alaska, where seaplane travel is almost pedestrian.

In 2020, it introduced seaplane service on routes booked from waters like Manhattan to the Hamptons. The following year it launched flights between the East River and the port of Boston, and since then it has been on the move, adding Plymouth and Provincetown, Mass; Sag Harbor, New York; and lastly the Washington area.

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The company’s original plan was to depart from College Park, which is disappointingly surrounded by land so passengers would not experience a water takeoff and landing on the same journey. However, safety problems forced Tailwind to look for a new airport, which it found in Virginia but, strike two, not on the Potomac. Washington Dulles has a little pond, if that’s any consolation.

The company’s maiden voyage took place on October 14. I booked a flight that departed three days later. Before I could take off, I needed to break my old commercial flying habits and get used to seaplane travel.

Regular rules do not apply

Tailwind Air is exiting Jet Aviation, a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) allowed to operate private, charter and commuter flights from Dulles. Passengers departing from here do not have to go through the same security checkpoints as at major airports. The airline screens travelers in advance using a national database. That means no body scans, bag checks, or stressful queues of any kind.

The 3-1-1 rule does not apply. Passengers can take adult-sized liquids on board. So, fill up the Big Gulp cup and throw in the 125ml bottle of Chanel No. 5. One dog – or two if they belong to the same family – is allowed in the cabin. Owner must pay regular fare for puppies weighing 25 pounds or more and secure smaller dogs in an approved carrier.

Passengers are allowed 20 pounds of luggage each. The company charges $250 for extra baggage and may ship the items separately. You’re required to provide your weight when booking, and while it’s important to be honest, no one will follow you with BMI calipers.

Seaplanes follow the same weather cues as other aircraft, with one notable exception: “The pilot needs to be able to see the water,” said Alan Ram, the airline’s chief executive, explaining that seaplanes don’t fly at night.

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If the plane fails to land, the pilot will divert to the nearest terrestrial airport such as Westchester in New York or Teterboro in New Jersey. The company covers the cost of the transfer to Manhattan, so you’re not stranded.

Jet Aviation is not directly affiliated with Dulles, so driving is the best option. Parking is free, a nice touch if you’re flying a return flight, but not if you’re on a one-way ticket like me. If you don’t have a car, you can take ground transportation from the main airport, or take a taxi or rideshare.

According to the company, Jet Aviation has an on-demand shuttle that will transport passengers to and from IAD’s main terminal. When I called Tailwind to arrange a ride, I was told to drive or take a cab; I later found out I should have called Jet Aviation. To avoid a step, I ordered a Lyft from the Wiehle-Reston metro station for about $15.

The gate closes 10 minutes before departure. Ram recommended flying in no more than 20 minutes early. I arrived half an hour before the 2:05pm start and checked in at the front desk. It was not necessary.

“We’ll forward the message to Tailwind,” one employee said, in the same leisurely tone of a nail salon receptionist.

Two guys in khakis and blue polo shirts were relaxing on a couch, heads buried in their devices. Let me guess: bachelor party? college reunion? company withdrawal? No: They were my pilots.

“Relax. They didn’t have to be here that early,” Captain Adam Schewitz said upon hearing me check in. “But they have good free coffee at FSOs.” In fact, a hot drink machine has nine options.

I didn’t think 30 minutes was excessively early until I found out our plane was 45 minutes late for what Schewitz called “no good reason.”

A “VIP passenger” asked for a later departure, he told me apologetically. I hadn’t received a notification, which prompted another apology. (The company said passengers should receive real-time notifications of delays. On the day I flew, the automated system was not operational on the new route.) However, the airline contacted the other two travelers, and the delay was addressed halved .

As soon as the other passengers arrived, we made our way to the plane, a short walk from the main building.

We could choose our seat. For the best panoramas, I followed Schewitz’s advice and settled on the right side of the plane. I had plenty of leg room and didn’t have to worry about a drinks cart slamming into my shins as there was no food or drink service or flight attendants (or bathrooms).

From the cockpit, Scheiwitz turned and gave us a Maverick-caliber thumbs-up. And then we took off, rumbled down the runway and headed for the river.

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Use your phone in the air

“We have phone service,” said a very satisfied passenger in business attire as the plane climbed toward the pillowy clouds. “That’s a reason to fly right there.”

I turned off airplane mode—another commercial flight rule I could ignore—and watched our blue dot move through Loudoun County, Virginia on Google Maps. “I’m looking for my house,” said a Tailwind employee and passenger.

The flight was smooth until we hit a stormy spot in Maryland. I put both feet on the floor to steady myself. The pilot found a keyhole in the dark clouds and headed for a bruise. I resumed my relaxed pose.

“No bars,” said the Cellphone Service Watch man as we flew over West Chester, Pennsylvania.

After passing a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey, Scheiwitz informed us that we would be landing in “mmphf” minutes. “Fifty?” I asked. He raised one finger and then five.

Before that, the New York skyline appeared like a pop-up card. Scheiwitz flew to the top of Manhattan and up the Hudson River. He turned right and crossed the island. Through my window I saw Central Park in its entirety, a vast green carpet unfolding.

Naval landing in Manhattan

The plane landed on the East River with a whoosh and a thud. The finale was as screaming as a rapid rafting ride at a water park. However, I only let out a soft “Whoa”.

The co-pilot jumped out and balanced on a pontoon while Schewitz steered the plane toward shore. “Welcome to New York,” he said after co-pilot Austin Tichy docked us in the Skyport Marina dock as if we were a boat.

At the pier, Schewitz informed us that we had reached an altitude of 9,500 feet and a speed of 220 knots. “I wanted to see how fast I can drive.”

It took me 60 seconds from the dock to enter the maw of Manhattan.

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More than just a mode of transportation to New York City, the seaplane is a scenic flight that ends with a double exclamation mark. It earned practical points for being quick and convenient, at least at the destination. As the service is new to Dulles, I can overlook the few hiccups.

I might not be a frequent flyer for the price, but I could afford a ticket for a special occasion – and a driver from Washington too.

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