New Helicopter App Flies High In East Hampton, Residents Still Hoping For Relief

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Take a seat, Hampton Jitney—there’s a new luxury mode of transportation taking the area by storm and it doesn’t involve sitting in Midtown Tunnel traffic.

Say hello to Blade, an application that offers full-service helicopter rides from Manhattan to the Hamptons and back via the East Hampton Airport. The company works off a partnership with Liberty Helicopters by essentially splitting the cost of a privately chartered helicopter and dispersing it among six people, according to Jeff Smith, vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council.

“Instead of a group of six people that already know each other having to book a helicopter trip for $3,000, this allows individuals to book flights,” not unlike how flying on a commercial airline works, Mr. Smith said. “It’s like crowdsourcing.”

Seats on a Blade flight cost $575 each way and customers have the option of various departure points across Manhattan, as well as an array of times and days to chose from. The average flight is about 42 minutes, according to the app.

Representatives from Blade could not be reached for comment.

The difference in cost, Mr. Smith said, has opened up the helicopter business to a new clientele—one that may not have been able to afford a one-way ticket for a few thousand dollars, but could shell out roughly $600.

“By crowdsourcing, it [the app] took a set of clients that were already flying out here and footing the whole bill to get out here … half the helicopters are full of those, and the other half are full of people who never thought it was affordable,” said Mr. Smith. “If you have 600 bucks, that’s way more affordable than chartering a whole helicopter for $3,000.”

But the access and relative affordability of Blade is not a significant actor in the reported increase in airport traffic over the past year, according to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and East Hampton Airport Manager James Brundige—and thus not significantly responsible for an increase in noise complaints from frustrated neighbors.

East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez told the Town Board last week that helicopter traffic had increased 40 percent over the past year, while overall traffic at the airport had gone up more than 20 percent, according to a report she prepared as the airport liaison.

The numbers for the increases in traffic were partially arrived at by looking at an increase of $300,000 in landing fees that the airport collected so far this year.

Complaints about airport-related noise have also increased. Noyac, Shelter Island and Sag Harbor Village generate the most noise complaints, according to a hotline for residents as well as an online complaint form, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. Complaints are coming from as far away as the Town of Riverhead, she added.

“I don’t know if we have any data of our own that would indicate the agent for it,” Mr. Cantwell said in a phone interview on Monday when asked if Blade has been a significant factor in increases in noise complaints.

“My understanding is that the price point is now lower, which has certainly made it more accessible to more people, and that certainly could be part of the reason for the increase that we’ve experienced, although we’ve also experienced an overall traffic increase. I think the driver is that the economy is better and the weather has been outstanding and more people are availing themselves of air service to and from East Hampton.”

Mr. Smith and Mr. Brundige couldn’t agree more.

Blade, said Mr. Smith, has brought a “new niche” to the helicopter industry, but he doesn’t believe it is solely responsible for the reported increase.

“It’s not necessarily providing a new service,” he said. “It’s kind of like Groupon or Travelocity for helicopters, which we’ve never had out here. But half of the people on those helicopters were already coming out here. The other half is probably a new customer base.”

Mr. Brundige said the airport does not have numbers that would indicate how many flights booked through Blade come in and out of the airport. He also said he could not pinpoint one specific reason as to why traffic has increased.

“It’s a reflection of the economy, to an extent,” Mr. Brundige said. “When we see traffic go up we can only guess.”

The buzz around Blade and its popularity does raise the issue of how much use the airport gets, and if the town will ever be in a position to impose restrictions on landings, offering solace to those residents affected by helicopter noise.

The airport is partially funded by Federal Aviation Association grants with certain assurances that do not allow the town to impose mandatory curfews on traffic. However, some of the grant assurances prohibiting the restrictions are set to expire at the end of 2014. If the town does not opt to renew the grants, it believes it can impose restrictions on when and how many aircraft can land. However, there is very little case law to determine whether or not that is true, according to Ms. Burke-Gonzalez.

According to a preliminary report by the BCAF Airport Finance Subcommittee, the airport could produce enough revenue to be self-sufficient, not depend on grants, and limit the amount of helicopter traffic.

The report breaks down three scenarios at the airport, comparing it to the current situation with no restrictions on helicopter traffic.

In the first scenario, 20 percent of helicopter traffic would be limited, with incoming and outgoing flights prohibited from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. There would be a debt capacity of $7 million, allowing for an ending fund balance of $1.3 million in 2018.

The second scenario would cut helicopter traffic by 50 percent, with helicopter operations also prohibited between 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. There would be a $5.1 million debt capacity, leaving $1.26 million as an ending fund balance in 2018.

In the last scenario—an unlikely one, according to Arthur Malman, chairman of the town’s Budget and Finance Committee—a mandatory curfew would be in place from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. with a debt capacity of $6.4 million, leaving $1.27 million in the ending fund balance by 2018.

None of the scenarios factors in the cost of litigation, which would be likely if the town restricted helicopter traffic.

“If anything, based on where we are right now, we believe that revenues available from the airport to basically pay interest and principal on bonds to continue to make capital improvements could be even more significant than what the original report indicated,” said Mr. Malman.

Mr. Malman said his committee is not responsible for choosing which projects get priority in terms of funding from the capital improvement plan, which has not been finalized.

In December 2013, the previous town board adopted a capital improvement plan outlining an estimated $5.26 million in projects intended to improve the East Hampton Airport over the next five years. However, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that figure is not an accurate representation of what needs to be done, although she could not provide an up-to-date number for the total capital improvements.

The town is financially responsible for most of the upkeep on the 600-acre property, with the exception of the private airplane hangars, which are leased to Sound Aircraft Services, which is responsible for the upkeep.

Recently, the Town Board approved the use of $270,000 in borrowing to repave one of the runways, and $353,6000 for taxi-way lighting, according to East Hampton Town’s Budget Officer Len Bernard. The borrowing was authorized by the board, he said, and the funds should be available as soon as this Thursday, August 28.

The projects are scheduled to begin sometime over the next month, Mr. Brundige said.

As for imposing helicopter restrictions, the town is still in the process of determining if and how that would be possible. The town will hold a public hearing on August 27 to address residents’ concerns regarding noise at LTV Studios in Wainscott. The meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. and be broadcast on Channel 22.

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