Feds Doing Something About Copters, Finally

Posted on 30 May 2010

By Karl Grossman

At long last, the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to take steps to do something about the racket made by helicopters taking people from Manhattan to the Hamptons and back again. But its plan is just a start.

U.S.  Senator Charles Schumer announced Friday that the FAA will set a minimum cruising altitude of 2,500 feet for the choppers and also “mandatory flight patterns.” These would bar them after leaving Manhattan from flying over North Shore communities and, instead, have them take an over-water route a mile out over the Long Island Sound. Then they’d be required to travel south over “least populated” areas to get to Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, the Southampton Village helipad and East Hampton Airport. Returning to Manhattan, they’d do the reverse.

The plan is “a step in the right direction—but only the beginning,” says Suffolk Legislator Edward Romaine. Mr. Romaine, Senator Schumer, Congressman Tim Bishop, and others, including Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty, the Noyac Civic Council and a group organized by Shelter Islanders have been in the lead battling the chopper noise.

Mr. Romaine, despite stiff opposition from helicopter operators and the FAA, got a county law enacted last year classifying low-flying chopper operation here as a “careless and reckless” and thus illegal. Mr. Schumer considers Mr. Romaine’s work pivotal.

He and Congressman Bishop then challenged the FAA’s contention that it was not empowered to regulate helicopter flight beyond the airspace of FAA-approved control towers. They called on FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to impose “regulations that will set a minimum flying altitude and a mandatory flight path for helicopters over Long Island…and that you do so in time for the 2010 summer season.”

The new FAA regulations are to take effect July 1.

Far more needs to be done. Mr. Romaine wants a truly over-water route taking the helicopters over the Atlantic from and back to Manhattan. A short hop over Georgica would be made in getting in and out of the East Hampton Airport, the field with the most chopper traffic. This was also the demand of the group put together by Shelter Islanders Ken Winston and Mike Loriz.

Mr. Romaine says the FAA has rejected this, maintaining the air space south of Kennedy is too busy. Mr. Loriz, a commercial airline pilot who flies regularly in and out of Kennedy  has—including at a meeting last July involving FAA officials—emphasized that that this is a feasible route. The “real reason” helicopter operators don’t want it, he says, are several extra minutes of flying time.

Mr. Romaine is vexed that there would still be under the FAA plan continued frequent chopper traffic over a number of communities, including North Sea, Noyac, Sag Harbor and North Haven, although the 2,500-foot minimum altitude will help..

State Assemblyman Marc Alessi is calling for “multiple” points of entry and exit for the helicopters and a requirement that these points “only be accessed during certain times of the day.”

The FAA has arranged a 30-day period for public comments on its plan.

The FAA has, at least, finally acknowledged it can regulate the Hamptons  helicopter traffic. Yet another issue: will it enforce its proposed regulations? A central problem: the FAA has a mission in conflict of interest—to boost air travel and at the same time regulate it. That’s similar to other federal agencies like the Mineral Management Service of the Interior Department, a cheerleader and regulator of offshore oil drilling—the unfolding Gulf of Mexico catastrophe tragically demonstrates its conflict—and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

For all these agencies, making rules means little because they don’t want to enforce them and interfere with the industries they are so busy promoting. How much of a difference will the new FAA rules make? 

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