The long-simmering debate about how best to address the issue of helicopter noise above the Los Angeles basin has come to full boil. The parties that had been trying to collaborate on voluntary abatement measures have seen them become mired in a miasma of mistrust, skepticism, anger and a sense of betrayal on the part of just about everyone who flies a helicopter through the airspace, including–for the first time–law enforcement.
It now appears that the efforts of all parties involved–the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA), the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA), an amalgamation of homeowner associations that form the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Noise Coalition (LAAHNC) and the FAA, through its L.A. Helicopter Noise Initiative–to find a workable solution that does not compromise air safety might be swept aside by congressional fiat. The political blueprint appears to be a side deal cut between former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to establish the now mandatory North Shore Route for helicopters over New York’s Long Island.
Increasingly, it looks as if that model will be applied in Los Angeles. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) successfully inserted into the omnibus $1.1 trillion federal funding bill language that compels the FAA to develop mandatory noise-mitigation rules and routes for helicopters operating in the Los Angeles area within one year if voluntary measures do not reduce noise complaints. It does not spell out an acceptable level of complaint or any objective means of measurement. Standalone legislation on the issue introduced by Schiff and other members of California’s congressional delegation had failed to clear committees in previous congressional sessions.
The FAA started bringing stakeholders together on the issue in 2012 through its Los Angeles Helicopter Noise Initiative and related subcommittees, after seven members of California’s congressional delegation complained to LaHood, then the Secretary of Transportation. The FAA issued a preliminary report on the situation last May noting the complexities that the area’s airspace congestion brings to the task.
“No single remedy can be implemented on a large scale throughout the Los Angeles Basin,” the agency wrote in the report. “The airspace over Southern California is among the most congested and complex in the world. For safety reasons, helicopter traffic must be separated by altitude from higher-performing and faster-moving fixed-wing aircraft. The density of land use in the area, as well as the complexity and diversity of airspace users, presents challenges to identifying optimal helicopter routes that are safe, efficient and serve noise-abatement purposes.”
Schiff characterizes the progress made so far through voluntary measures as “inadequate.” Solutions being considered by initiative participants included adopting an automated noise complaint reporting and mapping system, higher helicopter altitudes, noise-abatement routes and mandatory exclusion areas in “hot spots” such as Griffith Park, the Getty Center, the iconic Hollywood sign and the Hollywood Bowl outdoor concert arena.
Schiff’s office declined to make him available to AIN for comment. However, in a prepared statement released after the omnibus bill passed in January, Schiff said, “After years of pushing, residents should finally begin to see some relief from unnecessary helicopter noise. This legislation will hold the FAA’s feet to the fire and ensure that [it is] making every effort to reduce helicopter noise. Now, the FAA will have one year to act on its pledge to reduce helicopter noise through voluntary measures, or be forced to put in place real rules to provide relief to homeowners.”
Schiff’s tactic was seen as high-handed and an abuse of power by some working on the initiative, including PHPA board member Ed Story, who told AIN that Schiff is “a politician who has really decided to beat his chest and make this his issue and try and gain some form of popularity by doing so.
“This legislation is poorly worded and disregards all the actions taken by the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association and the industry over the last couple of years, and particularly over the last year. It’s premature…an abuse of the system. He [Schiff] shouldn’t have done it, and it is upsetting to people like me who have spent a lot of time [working the issue] pro bono. If he wants cooperation, this is not the way to get it.”
Numerous other members of L.A.’s helicopter community echoed Story’s sentiments, including Larry Welk, president of Angel City Air, a company that flies a fleet of Airbus AStars in support of the local news media.
“It is such a small segment of the population that is actually complaining about this [helicopter noise],” Welk told AIN. “To insert it into the omnibus was not necessary at all. I’m trying to figure out who benefits. If you talk to the homeowner groups they will tell you that they didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Welk disputes Schiff’s assessment, and claims that voluntary “fly friendly” measures are actually working to reduce helicopter noise, “based on meetings I have had with the homeowners’ associations.”
Kurt Robinson, CEO of Robinson Helicopter in Torrance, Calif., told AIN that his company had been working with the FAA and the City of Torrance since the late 1970s on voluntary noise-abatement measures that included flying approved routes and higher altitudes, flying only during normal business hours Monday through Friday, and not flying at night or over weekends. “We are strict in what we allow and don’t allow,” Robinson said. “We are committed to fly no lower than 600 feet agl, but as a matter of practice we never fly lower than 1,000 feet. Our biggest concern is safety.”
“You’ve got this huge helicopter industry out here that is willing to make changes and help,” Welk said. “Yet when we actually do help there is this political force working against us. So I am skeptical that I’ll be able to get people in the helicopter industry to come [back] to the table. Every time we have been working with the community, the residents are happier, but the politicians just amp up the rhetoric.”
Welk said that the number of media helicopters serving the L.A. area has declined in recent years (for example, there are no more traffic helicopters and several television stations have pooled helicopters) and that those still flying have adopted best practices in the wake of what became known as “Carmageddon One.” A section of busy Interstate 405 was shut down the weekend of July 15, 2011 for replacement of part of the Mulholland Bridge, which spans the Sepulveda Pass, an event that was supposed to produce massive traffic jams. In reality, most motorists heeded warnings to find alternate routes. However, seven ENG helicopters began arriving over the scene at 4 a.m. and lingered throughout the weekend, producing a heavy volume of noise complaints.
When the second bridge span was replaced the weekend of Sept. 29, 2012 (Carmageddon Two), news organizations used one pool helicopter that flew in and out quickly for the shot. The same pool arrangement was expected to be used to film lane closures over the 405 the weekend of February 14 last month.
Welk said his own pilots receive daily safety briefings that include weekly updated hot lists of sensitive areas to avoid, such as the Hollywood sign, and have adopted other voluntary measures such as flying higher, minimizing loiter times and staying over an area only for the duration of the live television shot.
Ed Story said that most helicopter pilots flying the basin already use the FAA helicopter route chart, which shows noise-abatement routes (mostly over freeways) and large icons to denote noise-sensitive areas such as the Hollywood Bowl. He said the PHPA had been asking the FAA to combine the helicopter chart with the Los Angeles terminal area chart to make it more useful to all pilots.
Of the estimated 200 helicopters based in the greater Los Angeles area, the majority are operated by the public sector. Law enforcement and fire rescue helicopters, estimated to account for anywhere from 60 to 86 percent of the total helicopter traffic in the L.A. basin, have similarly adopted a series of best practices to minimize their noise footprints, says Steve Roussell, western regional director for the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) and a pilot for the Los Angeles Police Department.
“All of us [the various police and fire agencies in the area] have fly-friendly programs,” Roussell said, adding that all LAPD pilots are encouraged to “keep it high and over the freeway” unless they are responding to a call. Roussell said all the area agencies are sensitive to noise complaints and go out of their way to accommodate property owners whenever possible. “The Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters are based at Van Nuys [airport] and they don’t even use the established Bull Creek Departure anymore because of the complaints from a vocal repeat customer” who lives underneath it, he said.
Nevertheless, noise concerns do not outweigh public safety, Roussell emphasized.
“We don’t want to hinder our pilots from making command decisions because they were afraid of violating [noise] policy,” and often they have little choice to do so, he said, explaining that the LAPD uses a computerized system called CompStat that analyzes crime data and determines which assets to deploy preemptively on any given day in a specific area–typically residential areas–including helicopters. And there is pressure to perform. “Once a quarter the chief [Charlie Beck] will ask Air Support what CompStat missions we have addressed,” Roussell said.
However, helicopter first responders were exempted from mandatory noise provisos in previous standalone bills, and Roussell said Schiff had personally assured local law enforcement that this would continue in any future legislation. “I just assumed we were exempted in the omnibus bill, too,” Roussell said.
Days after the bill passed, Schiff told KCRW radio listeners “there are no exemptions” for law enforcement. A reading of the bill language confirms this. “When law enforcement is part of the problem, they will be pressured to be part of the solution,” Schiff said.
“We feel betrayed by the congressman,” Roussell told AIN. “Especially in light of the work we have been doing for the last several years to help mitigate noise as an industry. The whole time we [law enforcement] were promised an exemption, then this new legislation comes out with no exemption. Betrayal is the common feeling among all of us.”
Larry Welk thinks Schiff might have inadvertently strengthened the helicopter community in the process. By eliminating the exemption for first-response helicopters, Schiff has made those agencies an active participant in the debate. “It’s going to be an uphill climb for [him]. The majority of noise generated by helicopters over Los Angeles is public service and they are just doing their jobs. Nobody is putting a law in effect that bans the use of a police or fire siren. It is part of living in the city,” he commented.
Welk thinks there is a good chance lawmakers and residents won’t give voluntary measures proper credit and that the FAA’s advice will be disregarded. “The blueprint is there. It’s the North Shore Route on Long Island. It doesn’t matter what the FAA recommends. The FAA studied the problem and issued a report and Congress said, ‘That’s not good enough.’ The government’s professionals, the FAA looked at this, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Beyond the rhetoric, there does not appear to be an objective mechanism or reporting system in place that can effectively measure and track helicopter noise complaints, Schiff’s benchmark for mandatory FAA action. The local helicopter noise coalition, the property owners and the PHPA have agreed after study that implementing the PlaneNoise complaint management system is the best solution. It’s the same system the Eastern Region Helicopter Council uses to track helicopter noise complaints over Long Island. However, so far neither Congressman Schiff nor the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has offered implementation funding. Ed Story said the system would cost approximately $35,000 to implement and publicize, a paltry sum considering Los Angeles County’s $28.2 billion annual budget.
“The thing that is so irritating to us is that the politicians make a big deal out of this,” said Story. “But they disappear when we ask for a monitoring system so we can deal with facts, not emotions.”
“Sec. 119D. The Secretary shall (1) evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles, and make adjustments to such routes if the adjustments would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks; (2) analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles County; (3) develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news gathering; (4) conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and to increase awareness of noise sensitive areas and events; (5) work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system; and (6) continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators: Provided, that not later than one year after enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall begin the development of regulations related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the Secretary can demonstrate the effectiveness of actions taken under the previous proviso to address helicopter noise.”