New bill would ban non-essential helicopter flights over New York City

This has been going on for far too long, residents say

June 16, 2022 Mary Frost
Helicopter operators will be reducing the number of tourist flights from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, but the Brooklyn Heights Association says that’s not enough. Photo by Don Evans
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Can New York City finally put a stop to its noisy, polluting and possibly dangerous helicopter flights?

If City Councilmember Lincoln Restler (Greenpoint, Brooklyn Heights) has his way, many of the nerve-jangling choppers might finally stop buzzing residents while they are trying to work and play.

Restler, joined by colleagues representing districts from Sunset Park to the Upper East Side and the Bronx, announced that he would be introducing on Thursday legislation that would ban all non-essential helicopter flights from the Wall Street and East 34th Street heliports. (A third heliport at West 30th Street is owned by the Hudson River Park Trust, a state entity, and would not be affected by this legislation.)

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“For too darn long, New Yorkers have been suffering from severe air and noise pollution so that a wealthy Wall Street executive can get out to the Hamptons and save some time, or so that a tourist can see Brooklyn Bridge Park from above,” Restler said at a press conference on the steps of City Hall.

Previous mayors and City Council members “have nibbled around at the margins and thought that if we could only make noise complaints to EDC [Economic Development Corporation], that it would somehow get better. It hasn’t. It won’t,” Restler said. “The only solution is to end non-essential helicopter travel from our heliports. So that’s what our bill does. We eliminate non-essential travel, tourism, trips to the airport, trips to the Hamptons, all of it — done, immediately, with this legislation.”

Restler was joined at the press conference by co-sponser Gale Brewer (Upper West Side) and Councilmember Shahana Hanif (Carroll Gardens, Park Slope). Also at City Hall was former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, representatives of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) and members of the nonprofit Stop the Chop NY/NJ.

“I was at a concert last night on the Great Lawn at Central Park, which at times was drowned out by the noise of tourist helicopters flying overhead,” said Stop the Chop’s President Andrew Rosenthal. “This bill is exactly what New York City needs to improve the quality of life for its citizens.” 

Melissa Elstein, chair and secretary of Stop the Chop, called the proliferation of helicopters flying low in the airspace a “real environmental threat.” She listed all the steps NYC officials were taking to reduce air pollution, including reducing vehicular traffic, and asked why not helicopters? 

(From left to right) Front row: Ken Coughlin, Stop the Chop volunteer; Melissa Elstein, STC Chair; Councilmember Gale Brewer; Councilmember Lincoln Restler; Lara O’Brien, STC Board; STC volunteer Middle row: Kim Glickman, Brooklyn Heights Association; Councilmember Shahana Hanif; two Council interns Rear: Adrian Benepe, STC Board; Any Trachtman, STC; Andy Rosenthal, STC President. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

‘Bupkis!’ says Benepe

“The city of New York has spent conservatively $5 billion dollars building new waterfront parks and interior parks across Brooklyn and Queens, only to have their effect ruined by the helicopters,” said former Park’s Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “There might be a few million a year return on investment from the helicopters for the city and the parks. There’s a technical word for that in budget talk: Bupkis! In exchange for bupkis, we are destroying this city.”

Scores of helicopters fly along “what the FAA calls euphemistically ‘the Parks Route,’” Benepe said. “That includes Brooklyn Bridge Park, Prospect Park, the Botanic Garden, Marine Park, Floyd Bennett Field, Jamaica Bay, and for good measure, let’s destroy Reese Beach too while we’re at it. They’re ruining the $5 billion investment the city has made.”

He pointed out that Mayor Eric Adams “could end the heliport contracts tomorrow, if he wanted to.” Benepe believes that the mayor will “do the right thing” after he studies the issue.

BHA Deputy Director Kim Glickman Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

It’s bad in Brooklyn, says BHA

BHA, which has been working on this issue for years, says the problem has spread from Brooklyn’s  waterfront areas to virtually the entire borough.

“By allowing private helicopters access to public heliports, the city is essentially prioritizing the enjoyment and convenience of a very few at the expense of the many — expenses which include negative impacts to health, peace of mind, and the ability to enjoy our parks and other public spaces,” said Kim Glickman, BHA’s deputy director.

From left: Councilmember Shahana Hanif; Councilmember Gale Brewer; STC Board member Adrian Benepe; Councilmember Lincoln Restler Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

It’s worse in Manhattan, says Brewer

As bad as the noise is in Brooklyn, Brewer said it’s even worse in Manhattan.

“The mayor keeps saying he’s interested in data. As of last year, 2021, there were 26,000 helicopter-related voice complaints to 311, and I have to say 21,600 came from Manhattan. This year, 2022, we’re going to hit even more complaints. So far, between January and May 31, 10,000 complaints to 311 about helicopters and it hasn’t even been the summer.”

A few weeks ago the EDC put out its Request for Proposals for the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, she said. (The five-year lease with Saker Aviation Services is ending.) “It’s time to act. The timing is now.” 

It’s not great in Jersey, either

Norrice Raymaker, a member of the Sergeant Anthony Helicopter Committee of Jersey City, told the Brooklyn Eagle, “During the peak tourist season, they were flying every three minutes over our houses, at a height of between 200 to 500 feet.”

Amy Trachtman, a member of Stop the Chop, lives in Jersey City. She said she is affected by choppers using the heliport in Kearny. 

“It’s a little insane if you live in the helicopter path. It’s kind of picked up for the past two years, since COVID,” Trachtman said. “The tourist helicopters are the worst. And it causes stress.” 

A 700 percent increase in complaints over the past three years

Helicopter noise complaints to 311 have soared, Restler said. “In just the last three years, we’ve seen a 700 percent increase of complaints citywide. Seventy New Yorkers are calling every day.”

Previous bills have tried to limit helicopters that exceeded a certain noise level, including a bill introduced by Councilmember Brewer  in April. Similar bills were sponsored over the last 12 years by officials including Rep. Nydia Velazquez and former Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (Sunset Park).

Restler’s bill, on the other hand, calls for a full ban. The banned flights — as many as 4,000 a month — would include tourist sightseeing jaunts, trips to airports and hops to Long Island beaches. 

Zip, Liberty Helicopters, and HeliNY are responsible for more than 1,800 tourist flights from the Downtown Helipad per month, while companies like Uber and Blade operate hundreds of flights daily out of NYC, according to Restler’s office. 

The majority of the riders on nonessential flight are tourists, “And the remainder are folks who take Uber and Blade trips — primarily wealthy New Yorkers who are  using the most aggressively carbon-emitting mode of transit, helicopters, to get from Point A to Point B as fast as they can. I think they should travel like the rest of us, on the ground.”

Other co-sponsors of the bill include Councilmembers Amanda Farias (The Bronx), Alexa Avilés (Sunset Park), Crystal Hudson (Fort Greene, Prospect Heights), Jennifer Gutiérrez (Bushwick, Williamsburg), Christopher Marte (Lower East Side), and Carlina Rivera (East Village, Gramercy Park).

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