Helo Traffic Up, Up, Up

Town could pursue curfews, with closure a backup
Helicopter traffic and helicopter noise accounted for the most complaints at East Hampton Airport. Durell Godfrey

While overall activity at East Hampton Airport decreased slightly last summer from the same period in 2017, operations — and particularly helicopter activity — were up sharply from 2016, when laws imposing curfews were in effect, according to a report delivered to the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday. 

“The headline here is the more than 50-percent increase in helicopter traffic in two years,” Bill O’Connor of the law firm Cooley L.L.P. told the board. With Mary Ellen Eagan of HMMH, an environmental and transportation planning consultancy, he told the board that that helicopter activity at the airport increased by 52 percent, almost 2,000 operations, from 2016 to 2018. (An operation is defined as a takeoff or a landing.) Overall activity was up by 13 percent over the same period, despite a 1 percent drop from 2017 to 2018. 

Helicopters were also the category spurring the most complaints to the two systems used to record noise grievances, responsible for 54 percent of all aircraft complaints. Helicopters, Mr. O’Connor said, are “the main source of the noise complaints, and source of the noise problem, in East Hampton.”

Helicopter activity increased by 152 operations, or 3 percent, between June 28 and Sept. 30 last year over the same period in 2017, Ms. Eagan said. Airplane activity fell by 305 operations, or 3 percent, but seaplane activity was up by 105 operations, or 5 percent. 

Airplanes remained the largest category of aircraft operating at the airport last summer, the 9,299 operations representing 52 percent of all activity. Helicopters, 32 percent of operations, or 5,729 takeoffs or landings, were next. But, Mr. O’Connor noted, “two years ago, helicopters were about one quarter of users. Now that’s shifted to one third.” Seaplanes were the next largest category, 12 percent of operations. The report lists “undefined aircraft” as the remaining 3 percent. 

In “trying to solve this issue,” one that has “been around for decades,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday, the town board adopted laws establishing overnight curfews in April 2015. A coalition of aviation interests calling itself Friends of the East Hampton Airport challenged the laws, postponing their implementation until just prior to the July 4 weekend. The restrictions were enjoined by a federal appellate court in November 2016, however, which ruled that the town cannot independently enact airport use restrictions but must follow the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act and seek federal approval. 

The town has turned to a Part 161 study, an analysis it must complete in order to propose and enact noise or operational restrictions on aircraft. On Tuesday, the consultants updated the board as to that effort’s progress, and reviewed as-yet-unsuccessful efforts at federal legislation to add nighttime curfews and require the Federal Aviation Administration to implement an air traffic management plan for East Hampton. 

But while the Part 161 action could afford the town the ability to impose curfews at the airport, and customized federal legislation to address airport-related noise should still be pursued, the board was told, preparations should also be made for the airport’s closure, which the town would legally be permitted to do upon the expiration of federal grant assurances in 2021.

While the restrictions enacted in 2015 banned takeoffs and landings between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., with an extended ban from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. for aircraft deemed noisy, “total operations continue to shift into the prior nighttime curfew hours,” according to the 2017-18 comparison. “ ‘Noisy’ aircraft operations continued to shift out of daytime hours into prior restricted nighttime curfew and extended curfew hours.” In short, “2018 operations continued to follow patterns from 2017 and deviate from the intent of the 2015 restrictions,” the report stated.

Noise complaints fell last summer relative to the summer of 2017, with overall complaints down by 10,586, or 23 percent. Complaints had roughly doubled, to more than 46,000, between 2016 and 2017, however, the appellate court ruling having lifted the curfews between those summer seasons. 

The Bell 407 helicopter prompted the most complaints last year, the board was told. The Sikorsky S-76, a helicopter that performed the most operations among all aircraft, drew the second highest number. A seaplane, the Cessna 208 Caravan, performed the second highest number 

of operations and brought the third 

most complaints. Not surprisingly, charter companies commonly use these aircraft to ferry people from Manhattan to East Hampton in the summer. 

Curfews, such as a blanket overnight curfew, Mr. O’Connor told the board, are an achievable outcome of the Part 161 action. But “frequency restrictions,” such as the board hoped to implement on aircraft deemed noisy in 2015, “may be more challenging.” The F.A.A. “likes to see a static restriction: Here’s the hours it’s open, here’s the hours it’s closed,” he said. “Any effort to try to impose caps could present a lot of litigation risk going forward.”

The F.A.A.’s metric of an airport’s annual day-night average decibel level doesn’t fit East Hampton’s condition as “a uniquely quiet and rural area,” Mr. O’Connor said, one that experiences a huge summer influx of tourists and second-home owners. The town is “starting from a real disadvantage in terms of math,” he said. “All the days you’re not hearing helicopters, that gets averaged, too.” 

Worse, “the F.A.A. has always been very skeptical of noise complaint data,” Mr. O’Connor said. Such data is just one component presented in a Part 161 study. “I don’t think it’s dispositive,” he said. But “in terms of defining a problem statement for our Part 161, we don’t need to rely on complaint data. It is, in a way, self-evident, there has been a lot of activity, not just here but throughout Long Island. . . . A correlation between routes and complaints makes complete sense.” For East Hampton “supplemental metrics we would present are quite critical,” he said, and F.A.A. officials he has spoken with have indicated an openness to considering such data on a discretional basis.

Concurrent to the Part 161 action, 

Mr. O’Connor suggested a “visioning process” to evaluate alternative uses for the 600-acre airport property, such as “to restore and preserve the quiet of our environment.” All stakeholders’ views would be considered, he said. “Have those discussions now to try to align with the town’s objectives and [with] residents’ best interests in mind.” 

Alternatives should be pursued in parallel with the Part 161 action and legislative efforts, he said, because “You can close this airport and use it for something else after grant assurances expire in 2021.”