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Noise: I Can’t Hear You

By By Todd Vorenkamp | May 1, 2016


When you think about New York City, one thing that does not come to the mind is “peace and quiet.” For those who live in Manhattan, or even in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, peace and quiet is something it seems you can find anywhere else but New York.

Even though the city is a constant cacophony of sound — jack hammers, diesel trucks, emergency vehicle sirens and ever-present traffic — there is a small group of residents living near the Downtown Manhattan Heliport and the shores of the Hudson River who have been attempting to eliminate the noise of turbine-powered tour helicopters. They call for a complete ban to rotary-wing tours over the city.

The debate between tour operators and these citizens might be representative of the socio-economic and political realities of New York City, but it also contains many common threads with similar arguments in metropolitan areas around the world.

The East 34th Street Heliport on
New York City’s East River replaced the Pan Am Building’s heliport in 1972. Photo courtesy of
Beyond My Ken / CC BY-SA 4.0

The helicopter tourism industry is a prolific one — providing $50 million in economic activity for the city, according to Chapin Fay, VP and associate counsel of Mercury LLC, a public strategy firm working with air tour operators and the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council. The industry also employs at least 250 people. It takes about 300,000 tourists aloft each year.

In 2015, residents filed nearly 180,000 noise complaints, according to city officials. Only 1,500 were due to helicopters, with 298 targeting air tour operators. (For comparison, 69,708 were against loud music from neighbors’ parties.)

New York saw some of the country’s earliest uses of helicopters. In the 1940s, some of the first military helicopter aviators trained at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. Igor Sikorsky, his son Sergei and the U.S. Coast Guard aviation visionary, Cmdr. Frank Erickson, demonstrated the first uses of the helicopter as an air-sea rescue platform in Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay. The New York Police Dept.’s was the first law enforcement aviation unit in the world, starting with fixed-wing aircraft and then adopting the Bell 47 in 1947.

Turbine helicopters also started ferrying passengers from Idlewild Airport (later renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport) to heliports in Manhattan through the 1960s and 1970s. Then the fatal crash of a New York Airways Sikorsky S-61 atop the Pan Am Building in 1977 spelled the end of those operations from the midtown skyscraper.

The West 30th Street heliport opened in 1956. Four years later, the Downtown Manhattan Heliport on Pier 6 opened in the East River, with the East 60th Street Heliport following in 1968. In 1972, the East 34th Street Heliport replaced the Pan Am Building’s heliport. (It had closed in 1968, reopening in 1977 until the crash shut it down after just three months.)

Addressing local communities’ quality-of-life concerns, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed the East 60th Street Heliport in 1997. The other three heliports remain in operation. The Downtown Manhattan Heliport is the world’s busiest, seeing more than 58,000 flights annually.

When helicopters arrived in New York City, its waterfront regions were bustling areas of commerce and shipping. Ferries, ocean liners and merchantmen lined its wharfs, piers and docks.

That changed after World War II. The mighty ocean liner succumbed to the pressures of intercontinental jet travel, efficient containerships slowly replaced break-bulk steamships and the waterfront became virtually abandoned swaths of grim real estate.

New Neighbors

Fast forward a half century and many of those same areas have been converted into gorgeous waterfront parks, luxury apartments and condos, entertainment venues and chic eateries. Now, instead of flying over areas of a vibrant shipping infrastructure, helicopters in New York fly over areas where city residents and tourists alike head for fresh air and a chance to escape the inner-city noise. So when noise from helicopters impede on this, nearby residents and businesses take notice.

The West 30th Street Heliport’s closest neighbor is a not-for-profit sailing school, located four blocks south of the VIP and charter flight heliport. Robert Burke, executive director of Hudson River Community Sailing at Pier 66, said he thinks helicopters in the area “put the convenience of a very few well ahead of the welfare of the many.” He explained, “People come to the park and the boathouse to get away from some of the stress living in a cramped busy city creates, and they are met at the water by excessive noise, noxious fumes from the fuel and a potential hazardous situation within feet of a pedestrian walkway and bike path.”

In 2014, a grass-roots movement to ban all tour helicopter flights arose. Known as Stop the Chop and sporting the silhouette of a Mil Mi-17 on its logo, the group was first led by a president, Delia von Neuschatz, who told the media that living in what was described as the comfortable Battery Park City neighborhood was “like living in a war zone,” due to the noise of the helicopters operating out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.

Besides complaining about noise, Stop the Chop’s website makes several claims that tourist helicopters in New York City create major issues for about 2 million of its residents and those in nearby New Jersey. The organization cites research of Dr. Kambiz Merati from the U.K. that sees a negative relationship between cognitive function in school children and chronic aircraft noise.

The organization also quotes an op-ed article in The New York Times from Jan. 30, 2016, stating that each Airbus AS350 produces 950 lb of carbon dioxide an hour — more than 43 times what a car produces. The article, written by former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Governors Island Executive Director Merritt Birnbaum, stated, “For those living and working nearby, that’s like 340 cars idling outside your window,” when only eight aircraft are on deck at the heliport.

Lastly, Stop the Chop claims that the helicopters can pose a terror risk to the city’s residents and visitors since there are no security procedures similar to those in place at airports.

Current Stop the Chop President John Dellaportas told R&WI that tourist helicopters in New York City “provide no benefit and wreak human misery on all near their flight path.”

Stop the Chop has been only a recent presence in the movement to ban tourist flights in the city. There also is a growing group of elected officials putting pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to take action. The dozens of elected officials are as high ranking as U.S. senators and congressmen. The most recent push came from New York City Council members Helen Rosenthal, Carlos Menchaca and Margaret Chin. The trio proposed bill to ban helicopter tourist flights. Paul Leonard, spokesperson for Chin, said, “There has been an increase in the number of flights over the years,” and Chin’s office has received “more calls from constituents” about the excessive noise helicopters create.

When it comes to curtailing and modifying visual flight rules helicopter traffic, the FAA (which owns the airspace surrounding the city) has that authority. However, two of the three New York heliports are leased to fixed-base operators. The West 30th Street Heliport is owned by the Hudson River Park Trust. Public ownership of the two other heliports allows the city to implement limits and regulations through heliport leases, since working through FAA channels can be time-consuming and cumbersome.

Early Restrictions

One of the first examples of the city working to modify and restrict traffic came in 1997. Island Helicopters (the operator of the East 34th Street Heliport) was evicted after the city accused it of owing at least $70,000 in back rent over 10 years.

Almost simultaneously, the Giuliani administration got its wish to close the East 60th Street Heliport, allowing Atlantic Aviation to then lease the East 34th Street Heliport.

Under the new leasing agreement, Atlantic was permitted to operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Previously, the heliport had been open 24 hr a day). There also would be no tour operator flights from the location. This agreement shifted a majority of the tour flights to the West 30th Street Heliport. That location then handled about 80% of the tour operator sorties, while the downtown heliport handled the rest.

A 2005 lawsuit filed by the Friends of Hudson River Park and 11 other plaintiffs against the Hudson River Park Trust and Air Pegasus, operator of the West 30th Street Heliport, mandated physical changes to the heliport as well as the four-year phaseout of tourist operations from that heliport.

In 2010, working through the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, tour operators negotiated voluntary restrictions to tourist flights with the New York City Economic Development Corp. The council, the helicopter industry’s leading organization, had been actively working with industry and government players since 1977.

“Helicopters have played a vital role in the city for transport, law enforcement, emergency medical services and more,” said Robert Grotell of the helo council. It “works to respond to concerns raised by the city, community groups and local elected officials, as well as the needs of the industry — always keeping safety first.”

The 2010 agreement served to move all tourist flights to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport as well as to eliminate “short tour” flights, overflights of Central Park, flybys of the Empire State Building and overflights of Governors Island (off Manhattan’s southern tip) and Brooklyn. Instead of operating over both the East River (northbound) and the Hudson River (southbound), all air tour flights would fly north and south over the Hudson River.

The move of the entirety of the air tour helicopter operations to the downtown heliport had unintended consequences, according to the helicopter council’s VP of government affairs, Jeff Smith. It happened to coincide with the early development of both the Brooklyn Bridge Park and a gentrification of the Hudson River waterfront known as the New Jersey Gold Coast. “It caused more of an issue with the increased number of helicopters than an issue with increased noise,” said Smith.

Although tourist helicopters had been operating over the Hudson River for years, the 2010 agreement’s stipulation that both north and southbound tour traffic fly over the Hudson created an increase in noise complaints from the New Jersey neighborhoods, leading elected officials in that state (including U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez) to call for an all-out ban of the tourist helicopters. Noting that the New York tour operators based their operations in New Jersey, these officials pressured City Hall in New York to act.

After years of support from the pro-tourism administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a helicopter pilot and advocate of rotary-wing aviation, the N.Y. City Council trio forwarded the bill calling for a complete ban on tour operators in the city.

“The negative contribution of tourist helicopters to air quality and noise is well-documented, and has for many years been a real problem for New Yorkers,” Menchaca said. “On the ground, we are hearing from residents about the real need for allies in government. In the City Council, we are ready to be that ally.”

With pressure mounting, the tour operators chose to work with the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council and New York powerhouse lobbyist James Capalino, whose firm received $85,000 from that group. Capalino is a personal friend of and fund-raiser for the mayor.

Facing an all-out ban, the tour operators, with lobbyist support, pulled off a bit of a coup. Saker Aviation Services, operator of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, was able to extend its lease (scheduled to expire in 2017) to 2021.

Under the agreement, operators were to end all tour flights on Sundays starting April 3, 2016. By January 2017, they are to reduce the number of tour flights by 50%. They also are to end all flights over Governors Island, conduct air quality monitoring, reduce aircraft engine idle times and provide monthly reports on the number of flights conducted.

A Roadmap for Others

A Chin spokesperson told R&WI that the council member is “very excited about” the Sunday flight ban, but added that there is a “long road ahead.”

The Economic Development Corp.’s SVP of public affairs, Anthony Hogrebe, called the deal a “win, win, win situation. It protects the industry, improves quality of life for those living near heliports and helicopter routes and preserves the economic stream for the city.”

The deputy director of the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council, Sam Goldstein, called the deal “another step forward in our long and continued effort to be good and responsible partners.”

But not everyone was happy with the deal. Stop the Chop’s Dellaportas told R&WI that the “deal is an utter sham. Even the Sunday deal is full of holes.” The group will continue to push for a complete ban on tour flights.

Other cities and communities are looking at New York’s system as a roadmap to reducing noise. An industry veteran said that politicians in Los Angeles and other cities have realized there is almost zero political risk in calling for a ban on helicopter tours. This, he told R&WI, is why a relatively small number of noise complaints have built such a robust political backing.

Downtown Manhattan HeliportNeed To Know1,500 of the nearly 180,000 noise complaints in New York City were due to helicopters.Concerned citizens say helicopters also produce pollution and interfere with cognitive function.I Can’t Hear YouPerceptions and political gains may outweigh facts when helicopter operations and noise critics collide.


Noise a Focus Of AHS Meeting

Helicopter manufacturer representatives, rotorcraft researchers and trade association officials plan to meet this month in Florida to discuss options for mitigating complaints about helicopter noise.

The closed-door meeting is scheduled to take place during AHS International’s annual Forum in West Palm Beach, Florida May 17-19. Discussions are to include means of reinvigorating the Fly Neighborly program developed by HAI members and expanding the use of altitude, approach, departure and route guidelines laid out by the program.

Forum attendees also will review recent research on the nature and sources of helicopter noise and means of mitigating it.

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