Fed bill hits hard on commercial helicopter routes
From Brooklyn Heights to Jamaica Bay, heli tours make hellish racket
In the latest legislative move to curb noisy helicopter and other flights over Downtown Brooklyn, other areas adjoining New York Harbor and elsewhere, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Brooklyn-Manhattan) has introduced “The Safe and Quiet Skies Act,” along with several representatives from other areas of the country.
The bill, according to Nadler’s office, would mandate strict regulation of commercial air tour operations to address defense risks and community disruption, including no overflights of defense, parks, cemeteries, and other sensitive installations and minimum altitude maximum noise limits on all flights.
While the bill doesn’t specify New York City or Brooklyn, a quote from Nadler leaves little doubt about its intended target. “The commercial air tours that buzz incessantly through New York City’s skies are not only a source of unnecessary and damaging noise and environmental pollution, they put New Yorkers and tourists in danger,” he said. “After more than thirty helicopter crashes in New York City since 1980 alone, many of which been fatal, I have repeatedly called on the FAA to impose additional regulations to keep our city safe. Unfortunately, the FAA has failed to take meaningful action.
“In 2019, nearly eight thousand commercial air tours flew over National Parks of New York Harbor Management Unit (NPNH) sites, which include national treasures like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island,” added Nadler, whose district includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Kensington, Sunset Park and Red Hook.
As long ago as the 1990s, there were frequent complaints, especially from people in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, about noise from helicopter flights, especially tourist helicopters. In 2016, the city limited the number of these flights, which mainly originated from heliports in Downtown Brooklyn and the Chelsea waterfront.
However, the resulting number of tourist flights was still too much for many Brooklyn residents. In addition, some tour companies merely relocated the flights to a New Jersey terminus, according to Gothamist.
Then, in 2019, Uber started operating shuttle helicopter flights between Lower Manhattan and JFK Airport, catering to well-off business travelers.
An article in THE CITY in November 2020 quoted Lara Birnback, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, as saying, “ You’ll be trying to take a stroll along Brooklyn Bridge Park or in that waterfront area, but there is one every couple of minutes.”
An October 2019 article in the Eagle by Mary Frost detailed a previous legislative attempt, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Nadler, Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney, all of whose districts include Brooklyn neighborhoods. The Improving Helicopter Act of 2019 was introduced on the steps of City Hall.
The Eagle also analyzed noise complaints received by the city’s 311 call center from January to October 2015. Of the 2,000 complaints, 43 were from Brooklyn.
“If the FAA handed out recognition awards, 2019 would forever be referred to the ‘Year of the Chopper,’” Toba Potosky, president of the board of Cadman Towers, told the Eagle at the time. “It’s 24/7 and it has to stop. This is no joke. It’s a quality-of -life issue.”
The Brooklyn Heights Association also said at the time that 80 percent of the activity at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport is non-essential. Sightseeing and other flights cause a constant din on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, in Brooklyn Bridge Park and over Governor’s Island, the group said.
Several years earlier, in 2015, several members of the City Council tried to tackle the issue on the municipal level with local legislation. They held a rally on the City Hall steps called “Stop the Chop.”
Councilmember Steven Levin said he heard complaints from his Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights constituents every day in the spring, summer and fall.
“We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and yet we allow for this constant disturbance,” Levin said. “You can’t go to Brooklyn Bridge Park on a nice day and enjoy the scenery, relaxation — the type of thing we built the park for — because of the intense noise from this virtually unregulated industry.”
The new Nadler bill would require tour flights over occupied areas (including residential, commercial and recreational areas) to be no louder than 55 dbA, the same level of noise commonly allowed for residential areas; would allow states and localities to impose additional requirements; prohibit tour flights over military installations, national cemeteries, national parks and more; and would require pilots to focus only on operating the aircraft, with other personnel concentrating on tour-giving.
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