Sick of helicopter noise? New bill would ban most chopper flights over NYC

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Following a fatal helicopter crash in June and thousands of complaints about helicopter noise, officials will announce a federal bill on Saturday that seeks to ban all “non-essential” helicopter traffic over New York City.

U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Nydia Velázquez and Jerrold Nadler, who all represent districts in Brooklyn, are set to introduce the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019 on the steps of City Hall. The bill aims to reduce chopper noise and the chances of helicopter crashes in one of the most densely packed cities in the world.

The legislation comes as companies like Uber and Blade have launched helicopter service from Manhattan to the area’s airports. This service, catering to the city’s wealthy and business travelers, is helping to drive an increase in flights over the city. (Prices for a shared flight start around $200.)

Maloney is the chief sponsor of the bill. After the crash atop a building on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan in June, she called helicopter accidents “one of the nightmares New Yorkers worry about … I truly, deeply believe that non-essential flight should be banned from New York City. It is just too densely populated, it is too dangerous, and there is absolutely no safe place to land.”

Since 1982, there have been roughly 30 helicopter crashes in New York City, causing at least 25 fatalities, the legislators said, citing National Transportation Safety Board records. The city banned helicopters from landing on rooftop helipads following a gruesome accident in 1977 in Manhattan.

Besides safety issues, the city’s 311 call center has received nearly 2,000 helicopter noise complaints through Oct. 15 this year, a Brooklyn Eagle analysis of city records shows.

Of these, 1,195 complaints originated in Manhattan; 463 were from Brooklyn and 284 from Queens. Staten Island and the Bronx had the fewest number of complaints, with 23 from Staten Island and 19 from the Bronx. Numerous additional complaints were uncharacterized by borough.

In Brooklyn, the ZIP code with the most complaints so far this year was 11201, which includes Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and Cobble Hill — neighborhoods across the East River from the busy Downtown Manhattan Heliport.

Visitors to Brooklyn Bridge Park and area playgrounds complain about near-constant helicopter noise. Some residents of Brooklyn Heights say it seems to be getting worse.

“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. “It’s 24/7 and it has to stop. This is no joke. It’s a quality of life issue.”

The Brooklyn Heights Association, which has been campaigning for years to reduce helicopter traffic, says 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 says.

An agreement reached by the city in 2016 reduced the number of flights starting January 2017 from 60,000 to 30,000 and banned all Sunday tourist flights over Governors Island.

However, it still maintained flights “at a level that was already the source of widespread community opposition,” the BHA said, criticizing the arrangement as a “closed door agreement.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio characterized the 2016 agreement as a win-win for city residents and helicopter companies.

Brooklyn Heights residents beg to differ.

The 2016 limit on flights allows 129 round-trip “Tourist Flight Operations” a day (not counting Sundays, when no flights are allowed), BHA Director Lara Birnback told the Eagle on Thursday. That comes to 13 per hour (given 10-hour days), she said, “or one every 5 minutes.”

“Since it takes a few minutes for a helicopter to take off or land, and since they spin their rotors on the tarmac for a while before and after landing, every 5 minutes essentially means a constant noise,” she said.

Birnback says the organization regularly receives complaints about the racket. Last week, she said, one Heights resident sent her a video of two helicopters “that were flying incredibly low” over Columbia Heights and Cranberry Street on July 24 from 6:30-9 p.m.

“They kept flying back and forth, directly over our building and it was deafening,” the resident told Birnback in an email. The resident called 311 around 7:45 p.m. that night “and was told they didn’t have a permit to do whatever they were doing, but there was nothing they could do. I was told I had to call the Mayor’s Office, but they were closed for the night so I had to deal with it,” she told Birnback.

“Our position is that it’s a needless imposition on the quality of life for residents and visitors alike,” Birnback said. “The fact that there have been 25 fatalities associated with non-essential helicopter traffic and accidents since 1982 is appalling. Communities across the city are being burdened with needless air and noise pollution for the entertainment and convenience of the very few.”

Sam Goldstein, a spokesperson for the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council, an air tour trade group, said, however, that “In reality, tours are the most regulated flights in the air. They are limited in their hours and days of operations and routes. They never fly over land. The caps in the 2016 agreement cut flights by 50 percent, but economics and other factors have meant overall tour numbers are down by even more than that. It’s difficult, and this bill at the federal level would be a complete jobs killer.”

Goldstein added, “West 30th street in Manhattan has a large corporate clientele and the business community certainly would be impacted by losing access to Manhattan.”

New York Helicopter Charter Inc., one of the smaller tour operators, filed for Chapter 11 protection last week after running short on cash, Bloomberg reported. The company said its financial trouble started in 2017, following the cut in the number of permissible helicopter takeoffs and landings in Manhattan.

Helicopter takeoffs and landings at New York City’s three major airports increased 51 percent from 2015 to 2018, according to USA Today.

The Downtown Manhattan Heliport is owned by the New York City and run by Saker Aviation. The two other heliports in the city, the West 30th Street and the East 34th Street heliports, don’t allow tourist flights.

Update (2:30 p.m.): This story has been updated to include additional comments from Sam Goldstein, a spokesperson for the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council.