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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We tried the new seaplane flight from D.C. to New York

The 80-minute flight from Dulles isn’t cheap, but you get a scenic trip straight to Manhattan

Video captures the view from a seaplane as it lands in the East River at the end of the journey from Dulles International Airport to Manhattan. (Video: Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
8 min

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 to New York City, and the amphibious flights eliminate much of the dread associated with the trip north. Passengers won’t hit traffic snarls (car, bus) or find themselves exiled in the wrong borough or state (commercial air). The travel time is also quicker than the train, including Acela, which clocks in at less than three hours.

Although a seaplane ticket is pricey, with one-way fares starting at $395, the views from the air are exclusive to private planes and birds. Plus, the water landing will cause the jaded heads of New Yorkers to turn.

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

Flying by air, landing by sea

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

In 2020, it introduced seaplane service on routes bookended by bodies of water, such as Manhattan to the Hamptons. The following year, it launched flights between the East River and Boston Harbor, and it has been on a tear ever since, adding Plymouth and Provincetown, Mass.; Sag Harbor, N.Y.; and, most recently, the Washington area.

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The company’s original plan was to depart from College Park, which is disappointingly landlocked, so passengers would not experience a water takeoff and landing on the same trip. Security issues, however, forced Tailwind to scout for a new airport, which it found in Virginia, but, Strike 2: not on the Potomac. Washington Dulles does have a little pond, if that’s any consolation.

The company’s maiden voyage took place Oct. 14. I booked a flight departing three days later. Before taking off, I had to break my old commercial air habits and become versed in the ways of seaplane travel.

Regular rules do not apply

Tailwind Air leaves from Jet Aviation, a fixed-base operator (FBO) permitted to manage private, charter and commuter flights out of Dulles. Passengers departing from here do not have to go through the same security rigmarole as they do in major airports. The airline screens travelers in advance using a national database. This means no body scans, bag inspections or stressful queues of any type.

The 3-1-1 rule does not apply. Passengers can bring grown-up-size liquids onboard. So, fill up that Big Gulp cup and toss in the 125-milliliter bottle of perfume. One dog — or two, if they belong to the same family — is permitted in the cabin. The owner must pay the regular fare for pups weighing 25 pounds or more, and secure smaller dogs in an approved carrier.

Passengers are allowed 20 pounds of baggage each. The company charges $250 for extra luggage and may ship the items separately. When booking, you must provide your weight, and although it’s important to be honest, no one is going to come after you with body fat calipers.

Seaplanes follow the same weather advisories as other aircraft, with one notable exception: “The pilot has 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 aircraft can’t splash down, the pilot will divert to the nearest terrestrial airport, such as New York’s Westchester or Teterboro in New Jersey. The company will cover the cost of shuttling you to Manhattan, so you won’t be stranded.

Preboarding rituals

Jet Aviation is not directly attached to Dulles, so driving is the best option. Parking is free, a nice perk if you fly round trip but not, if, like me, you booked a one-way ticket. If you don’t have a car, you can catch ground transportation from the main airport or grab a taxi or car share.

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 learned that I should have called Jet Aviation. To eliminate a step, I ordered a Lyft from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station for about $15.

The gate closes 10 minutes before takeoff. Ram recommended gliding in no more than 20 minutes beforehand. I arrived a half-hour before the 2:05 p.m. takeoff and checked in at the front counter. There was no need.

“We will pass along the message to Tailwind,” an employee said with the same unhurried tone of a nail salon receptionist.

Two guys dressed in khakis and blue polo shirts were relaxing on a couch, heads deep in their gadgets. Let me guess: Bachelor party? College reunion? Company retreat? Nope: They were my pilots.

“Just relax. You didn’t have to be here so early,” said Captain Adam Schewitz when he overheard me checking in. “But they do have good free coffee at FSOs.” Indeed, a hot beverage machine has nine options.

I didn’t think 30 minutes was excessively early until I discovered that our plane was delayed by 45 minutes, for what Schewitz described as “not a good reason.”

A “VIP passenger” had asked for a later departure, he told me apologetically. I had not received notification, which led to another apology. (The company said passengers should receive real-time alerts about delays. On the day I flew, the automated system was not yet operating on the new route.) However, the airline contacted the two other travelers, and the delay was cut in half.

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

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

From the cockpit, Schewitz swiveled around and gave us a Maverick-caliber thumbs-up. Then we were off, rumbling down the runway, headed for the river.

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Using your phone in the air

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

I switched out of airplane mode — another commercial air rule I could ignore — and watched our blue dot in Google Maps move through Loudoun County, Va. “I am looking for my house,” a Tailwind employee-cum-passenger said.

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

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

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

Ahead, the New York skyline appeared like a pop-up card. Schewitz flew toward the tip of Manhattan and up the Hudson River. He took a loping right turn and traversed the island. Through my window, I saw Central Park in its totality, a giant green carpet unfurled.

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On the East River, the plane landed with a whoosh and a thud. The finale was as scream-worthy as a rapids rafting ride at a water park. However, I only let out a soft “whoa.”

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

On the pier, Schewitz told us that we had reached an altitude of 9,500 feet and a speed of 220 knots. “I wanted to see how fast I could go.”

From the dock, it took me 60 seconds to enter the maw of Manhattan.

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The takeaway

The seaplane is more than just a conveyance to New York City. It’s also a sightseeing flight that ends with a double exclamation point. It earned practicality points for being speedy and convenient, at least in the destination. Because the service is new to Dulles, I can overlook the few hiccups.

For the price, I could not become a frequent flier, but I might splurge on a ticket for a special occasion — and spring for a driver from Washington, too.