New York City helicopter access war heats up

New York City has had a troubled relationship with the helicopter industry since the Sikorsky S-61 accident on the Pan Am building in 1977, which killed five people. But what has been an uncomfortable relaxation for decades is now on the brink of total war, and city officials are pushing for civil rotary wing aircraft to be removed from Gotham’s skies forever.

Paul Vallone leads the indictment. The chairman of the New York City Council’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) has little understanding of the local helicopter industry. At an EDC hearing last month, Vallone accused the industry of creating noise that “loots our neighborhoods”. Vallone, a keen advocate of local and federal legislation that would effectively cease civil helicopter traffic over New York, said New Yorkers need to “reclaim our skies” and predicted the legislation would pass. “We will have a win,” he said.

During the two-hour hearing, the EDC entertained testimonies from a variety of community activists who said helicopter noise caused illnesses such as poor recognition, mental health problems and heart disease. “You’re going to go crazy before you die of a heart attack,” said Ajit Thomas. Steven Fox, a resident of Riverside Drive, compared the city’s helicopter noise to “living in a war zone.”

Laura Birnback, a member of the anti-helicopter group Stop The Chop, accused the city of continuing to “care for the few citizens who have a few hundred extra dollars to burn on a short drive to the airport”. Melody Bryant said it was unfair for the city to give preference to “wealthy charter companies”.

Vallone’s complaints to the helicopter industry and the FAA are innumerable. Regarding the FAA and its powers of prevention, he lamented, “We cannot control the skies over our airports. But I’ll be damned if someone else can tell us what’s going on above the New York City skies without us telling them what it is. And that’s exactly what happened. “

At the same time, Vallone laments the inadequate tax revenue generated by the helicopter industry. “We’re not getting any income from this industry that diminishes the impact on quality of life,” he said. His sharpest comments, however, were reserved for elements of the local helitouring industry, which have relocated their bases in New Jersey and the suburbs of New York to circumvent the tour capacity restrictions introduced in 2016 at the city’s heliports. Vallone accused a prominent helitouring company, FlyNYON, of deliberately ignoring New York City’s no-fly zones in order to “fly with the doors open and these idiots (customers) taking pictures. We don’t fly helicopters over Hoboken and take photos of what is left of New Jersey. ”

Paul Vallone, Chairman of the New York City Council Committee on Economic Development (left) and Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal (right).

Although helicopter traffic over New York fell 90 percent last year, mainly due to the Covid-19 shutdown there, complaints about helicopter noise on the city’s 311 hotline rose 130 percent from 2019. According to Adam Lomasney, aviation director of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the local agency that oversees its air cargo, the helicopter’s flight volume has recovered to nearly 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The rapid acceleration of noise complaints is similar to an increase in 2015, the year before, when New York convinced the local helitouring industry to reduce flights “voluntarily” by 50 percent and to stop them entirely on Sundays from 2017 onwards.

When Vallone spoke of the deal, he seemed to believe industry complaints that it was little better than blackmail. “If I had to sit back and wait for the FAA to help the people of New York City, nothing would freak out here. We have done things voluntarily with penalties and contracts and regulations, ”he said.

In 2015, in the months leading up to the deal that cut Helitour flights, helicopter noise complaints also rose to 1,083 for the year, and fell to 681 in 2016. And the latest, albeit incongruous, statistics on helicopter noise complaints are being used by Vallone and his allies to advance two city bills of particular concern to the helicopter industry.

Bill 2026 prohibits charter helicopters from taking off and landing at the two urban heliports – Manhattan Downtown and East 34th Street – unless they are determined to meet Level 3 noise requirements, while Bill 2067 requires that urban heliports provide helicopter routing Information to the city council “on request”.

Both bills are opposed by industry groups such as the Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC). Longtime ERHC officer Jeff Smith warned the EDC that the bills would do nothing to reduce helicopter noise in the city, but would lead to the economic decline of both urban and one private helipad in New York. Smith noted that level 3 helicopters are not currently commercially available in the size required for charter and tour operations.

Closing these helipads, however, would preclude their availability if cheaper and quieter eVTOL – electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft – went online in the next few years, industry groups warned. Alluding to that technology, Smith said, “While we are talking about the dream of more New Yorkers traveling by air, that bill completely eliminates that dream.”

Both Vallone and community activists who attended the hearing did not appear to be affected by this argument. Vallone turned down the promise of quieter eVTOLs, wondering when they would actually fly commercially. “I’m listening to 2025, 2030,” Vallone said. “It’s not something I can bring back to the people in Queens and say, ‘Hang on guys.'”

Aside from taking the helipads out of service, city law has another problem: it is illegal to do so, according to ERHC legal advisor Jol Silversmith. He said the bills violated the Airport Noise & Capacity Act of 1990, a law passed to prevent municipalities from establishing their own aircraft noise and access restrictions, and violated federal aviation law on pre-emptive rights and exclusive rights. Silversmith added that for a helipad receiving state aid, it is illegal for one group of helicopter operators to favor another.

But not everyone in the local industry agrees against the universal application of further helicopter restrictions. Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of the Blade helicopter ride-sharing center, made it clear to the committee that he was concerned about elements of the region’s helicopter tour industry. “The noise comes from non-New York City (based) helicopters flying over Manhattan for tours,” he said. Wiesenthal said blade flights are typically operated in operator-flown Bell 407s that come close to level 3 standards and fly over water routes. “We will not work with anyone who flies over the cityscape,” he proclaimed. Like ERHC’s Smith, he warned the bills have longer-term implications. “It is important to note that the legislation here will lead to the shutdown of the helipads in New York City, which will endanger the infrastructure required for the arrival of electric aircraft,” Wiesenthal said.

According to Vallone, that doesn’t matter in the local political equation. “If the net result of this legislation is the end of an industry that is next and that nobody really cares about, then we are in a difficult position. Because the people we care about don’t want it anyway. “

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