Following more than an hour of public commentary on airport noise, which included proposals on how the town should proceed once it is free of Federal Aviation Administration control next year, the East Hampton Town Board at its Tuesday work session presented the second phase of its airport noise analysis.
Much of the report confirmed what East End residents have been saying all along—that helicopters generate the most complaints of any aircraft during evening and early morning hours. The most reasonable and obvious solution to the problem? Time-based restrictions that would limit traffic, according to consultants at Harris, Miller, Miller and Hanson, or HMMH, and the attorneys at Kaplan, Kirsch & Rockwell, which represents the town.
In his presentation to the board, Ted Baldwin of HMMH said that his firm gathered 12 months of complaint data and identification data from the airport’s Vector system and compiled it with the information given during the first phase of the noise analysis and found that between November 1, 2013, and October 31 of this year, nearly 24,000 complaints were recorded, from 633 households.
“This is truly extraordinary,” Mr. Baldwin said. “There’s a very good reason that we’re meeting here. [Chicago] O’Hare International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, until October last year was collecting 1,200 to 1,300 complaints a month.”
According to Mr. Baldwin, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged the effectiveness of using substantial complaint data for decision-making in its ruling on the New York North Shore Helicopter Route.
Mr. Baldwin said during that time residents find helicopters more disturbing than any category of fixed-wing aircraft because the complaints increase at a faster rate than the rate of operations, meaning that there was more than one complaint per operation, where as the other aircraft typically received one per operation.
Approximately 25 percent of all annual operations at East Hampton Airport were done by 25 specific aircraft: 14 helicopters, five single turbopropeller seaplanes, five other propeller aircraft, and one jet. High season at the airport begins May 1 and runs through October 31.
Katie van Heuven, an attorney with Kaplan, Kirsch & Rockwell, said her firm and HMMH looked at eight different solutions the town could adopt to deal with the noise, but whatever they choose would have to be narrowly tailored to the specific problem and it cannot be unjust, discriminatory or overly responsive.
With those guidelines and a clear problem—that East End residents find helicopters more disturbing than any other aircraft, especially during busy times and in the evening and early morning hours—there is a clear solution, which is to restrict times in which aircraft can fly in and out of the airport.
She added, however, that it won’t be one option that solves the problem but a “menu of options” that should “work together as a collective whole.”
She mentioned that a possible ban on certain aircraft, a slot system to manage the flow of traffic, and voluntary measures on the part of pilots could all work, but she added that more analysis must be done before any of those solutions can be considered. Ms. van Heuven said that these options would have to be narrowly tailored so as not to be arbitrary and that to simply ban commercial flights would be difficult.
She said taking no action is not an option, given the large number of complaints, and that increasing fees during peak periods or for specific aircraft wouldn’t be a good approach either. She said the town would have to raise the fees high enough to change people’s behavior, but it might not be seen as reasonable under federal law and could put practical limits on who can use the airport.
Although Mr. Balwdin said that “altitude is noise abatement,” in his presentation, the town cannot make any decisions about flight. They can only decide on access to the airport.
Several residents supported a complete ban of helicopters, citing major disturbances they’ve had, especially within the last couple of years. Many said that the town should return the airport to recreational use only.
“I can see helicopters in line, following each other all day long,” said Sag Harbor resident James Ding. “I’m going to fight this thing every chance I get, because this is just ridiculous. Take control. Be a hero or be Nero.”
He said that on television he watched an executive of Blade, a new crowd-sourcing enterprise that offers helicopter seats between Manhattan and East Hampton for as low as $109, and he was perplexed. “It’s double the amount of a Hampton Ambassador seat,” he said. “What person is not going to get on and go? Now it is a high-priced taxi service, and we all know it.”
Some pilots said a ban or extreme restrictions would be detrimental.
“I’ve been called a wealthy old man, a cowboy, morally corrupt, a 1-percenter, and an outside interest,” said pilot Kathryn Slye. “I can assure you, I am none of those things.”
Ms. Slye, who said she is a local pilot who flies a Cessna, said she was told during campaign season in 2013 that such measures wouldn’t be taken. “I asked Kathee [Burke-Gonzalez] if she’d support putting extreme restrictions on the airport, and she said, ‘I would never take extreme actions relative to the airport’—yet here we are,” she said. “The Town Board needs to ensure it protects the interests of local pilots, those of us who take our little Cessnas and buzz around in the sky.”
The second phase of the noise analysis will be available on the town’s website.