Lawmakers Urge FAA To Renew North Shore Helicopter Route; North Forkers Not So Eager

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An over-the-water helicopter route along Long Island’s north shore, mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, is set to expire in August, and lawmakers are scrambling to make it permanent.

The route has alleviated complaints about intense, droning noise from helicopters taking off and landing at East Hampton Airport—but not for everyone. Those living on the North Fork still have it bad, according to Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell.

That’s why the lawmakers, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, are also pushing the FAA to change the route to require pilots to fly around Orient Point and Shelter Island, instead of crossing over the North Fork on route to East Hampton Airport, to further mitigate noise.

The Department of Transportation created regulations in 2012 that require pilots to fly, between the waypoints in Huntington and Orient Point, one mile off the north shore. Those who deviate from the route, except for safety or weather reasons, or if they’re transitioning from a takeoff or landing, can be fined or have their license revoked.

Since the route’s introduction in 2008, complaints about helicopter noise on Long Island decreased in number, but certainly not in Mattituck, according to resident Teresa McCaskie. Her experience has been all too familiar to some who live near East Hampton Airport.

“There’s a barrage of air traffic over my home,” she said on Friday in a telephone interview. In the background, the loud sputtering of an aircraft could be heard. “Last summer, at 12:05 a.m., I had helicopters flying over my home, and at 6:30 in the morning.”

On Friday, Mr. Russell said the North Shore Route, while providing relief for some communities to the west, has caused grief for others like Ms. McCaskie. He said Southold Town would be “vehemently opposed” to the FAA renewing the route as it is.

“It didn’t provide relief, it provided grief to Southold Town,” he said. “Depending on the week, we get 40 to 50 complaints on a weekly basis.”

He said Southold Town has become a transition zone for pilots coming to and from the Hamptons and that the exception in the FAA’s rule that allows pilots to use their discretion and deviate from the North Shore Route has plagued Southold skies with helicopter noise on a regular basis.

“I’m screwed, flat out,” Ms. McCaskie said. “All the people on the North Fork, from Manorville over, are screwed. I live 34 miles away from East Hampton Airport … pilots who drop over my house to 2,000 or 1,500 feet are not going to get their hands slapped, because they are transitioning.”

The solution seems relatively easy—just have the helicopter pilots go around the North Fork, as Mr. Bishop and Mr. Schumer would like.

But Mr. Russell and Ms. McCaskie said that while it would provide substantial relief, there would still need to be changes to the rule that would not give pilots an easy out through exceptions.

According to Jeffrey Smith, the vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, neither solution will do. While the majority of helicopter pilots complied with the North Shore Route to help reduce noise, it actually had the opposite of its intended effect. “We found out the noise complaints increased 350 percent,” Mr. Smith said. “It didn’t fix the problem, it made it worse.”

He said the problem isn’t noise, it’s volume. Air traffic is “funneled” over the North Fork. Approximately 11,800 helicopters land and take off from East Hampton Airport each year.

If the new North Shore Route were approved, it would add 50 to 55 miles to the 100 miles it takes to get from Manhattan to East Hampton.

Mr. Smith said the change would increase the cost of operating a helicopter by 60 percent by adding on those extra miles. Small businesses wouldn’t be able to afford it, he said.

Aside from burning a hole in helicopter companies’ budgets, it would also take a bite out of the economy, Mr. Smith said. Since it would be more difficult to get in and out of the Hamptons, some second-homeowners would consider spending their time elsewhere, he said, and a loss in that tax income could be detrimental.

Instead of renewing the North Shore Route with changes, Mr. Smith said the FAA should let it go.

“Let it sunset, and let us experts, who have done 30 years of noise mitigation, sit down with the FAA and come up with a sensible solution without fear of regulation,” he said. “Give us a two-year period to come back and see if it worked better than the one we have now.”

Jim Peters, a spokesman for the FAA, issued a statement on Friday, saying the agency is reviewing the effects of the current route rule and is deciding whether to propose to make it permanent. He said if the FAA decides in favor, additional rule-making would be needed.

Ms. McCaskie in the meantime is remaining hopeful.

“At this point, my heart says someone is listening to all of us—maybe we’ll win the battle,” she said. “But I don’t see it in black and white. I’m very cautioned, very worried and concerned. I believe all town supervisors should be given this vital information to review before it’s pushed through. I never would’ve imagined having this amount of air traffic living on the North Fork.”

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