Sunset Looms for North Shore Helicopter Route

 - June 2, 2014, 3:10 AM

As of the middle of May, the FAA had yet to determine if it will renew its mandatory VFR helicopter route along the north shore of New York’s Long Island. The controversial North Shore Route was established for voluntary compliance in 2008 as a response to residential noise complaints and political prodding from elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), who pressed then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the FAA to make it mandatory. The FAA did so in August 2012 (FAR 93.103 A & B), granting numerous safety and weather exemptions and with the proviso that the mandated route would expire, or “sunset,” this August unless the agency formally renewed it.

From its inception, the route has been controversial because it is over water, imposes the same east and westbound floor of 2,500 feet for traffic using it and is proximate to existing flight-training areas occupying altitudes between 2,000 and 4,000 feet. Operators complain that the route presents safety concerns, while noise complaints from North Shore residents have increased by 360 percent since the route was established, particularly in the route transition areas, including North Fork.

“The effect of the North Shore route is to move [noise] complaints out to the North Shore,” said Jeff Smith, vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC), the association of helicopter operators on the U.S. East Coast from Washington, D.C., to New England. The ERHC began tracking noise complaints in 2006 as a way of identifying noise-sensitive areas.

Before the establishment of the North Shore route, most island helicopter traffic followed the Long Island railroad tracks up the center of the island to the Long Island Expressway. The “track route,” with its beginning over New Hyde Park, Floral Park and Garden City Park, prompted initial complaints to Schumer and other elected officials, who began working with stakeholders to find voluntary solutions to the problem. The helicopter community favored a solution that established voluntary routes and dispersed traffic, while the politicians and community activists lobbied for a solution that concentrated helicopter activity offshore.

Last year the Helicopter Association International (HAI) unsuccessfully challenged the FAA’s authority to impose the route in federal court.

So far, the FAA has been coy about its intentions for renewal of the route. In a statement to AIN, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said, “We have no update.”

More Mandates Possible

Meanwhile, Schumer is agitating for creation of another mandatory offshore helicopter route, this one along Long Island’s South Shore, a move with the potential to explode the level of noise complaints for helicopter traffic into both East Hampton (KHTO) and Gabreski (KFOK) airports. Of the 8,777 recorded helicopter operations over Long Island last year, 5,728 were into/out of East Hampton Airport. (Gabreski had 1,394 while the Southampton Heliport [87N] posted 1,648.) East Hampton already accounts for 70 percent of all helicopter noise complaints over Long Island, according to Robert Grotell, whose firm PlaneNoise maps, processes and tracks noise complaints for the ERHC to assist in identifying noise-sensitive areas. Fully 80 percent of helicopter flights over the island come during the summer months, with peak concentrations around the major seasonal holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day).

“A lot of the time, especially with the helicopter noise issue, elected officials and community groups point to a solution first without knowing what is really driving the issue,” Grotell told AIN. “There are so many variables. Is it a weather issue? Are pilots following the voluntary guidelines? Is the traffic supposed to be there? How many distinct households are filing the complaints?”

Grotell said PlaneNoise data collected for the ERHC has found that the top 10 complaining households file 50 to 80 percent of all the noise complaints. Nevertheless, Grotell said it would be a mistake to dismiss frequent complainants. “These people truly have a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s indicative of, perhaps, a larger issue,” he said.

Using the North Shore route as an example, Grotell said the PlaneNoise data showed that “when you concentrate traffic on a single line you are going to affect the proximate households repeatedly. Contrary to the statement of certain elected officials, helicopter noise is not an island-wide issue.”

Grotell said the complaint data shows the mandatory North Shore route has failed as a noise-mitigation tool. “The rule did not [provide relief to] those who were most affected by helicopter traffic on Long Island. If the goal of the North Shore route was to provide noise mitigation it has failed,” he said. “Bottom line: it has changed nothing.”

If a mandatory South Shore route increases noise complaints tied to East Hampton it could cause helicopter operations into that airport to be curtailed or perhaps even eliminated, said airport manager Jim Brundige. Speaking at a stakeholder meeting sponsored by the ERHC on April 30, Brundige reminded the audience that the FAA agreed not to enforce federal grant assurance provisions after 2014 at East Hampton under terms of a litigation area community groups filed in 2005. That means that the local government could vote to limit airport operations, such as enacting helicopter curfews, banning helicopters or closing the airport altogether after this year without running afoul of the typical 20-year continued-operations requirement affixed to acceptance of FAA airport grants.

“Some of the [helicopter noise] complaints are from people who are determined to shut down the airport or at least shut down helicopter traffic,” Brundige warned. “How helicopters fly in and out of the airport this year will have enormous consequences on future helicopter operations.”

In cooperation with the ERHC, East Hampton has developed helicopter noise-abatement arrival and departure routes into and out of the airport for the last several years and is continually modifying those routes based on the noise complaints it receives. “Our policy is to develop helicopter routes in and out of East Hampton Airport at the highest possible altitude with the lowest community impact,” Brundige said.

The ERHC’s Smith said that the 10 largest helicopter operators using East Hampton have already signed on to voluntary noise-abatement there and have committed to using arrival and departure routes developed to mitigate noise.

Smith said the ERHC has also designed new voluntary transitions that will provide improved noise mitigation compared with the North Shore route as currently established and used. “The day it [the North Shore route] sunsets, I have the operators on board. We have the plan all ready. I have it on a map and we are ready to go,” he said. That plan has several components, including moving traffic in some noise-sensitive areas up to 3,500 feet and dispersing traffic, with heavier twin helicopters, such as AgustaWestland AW109s, Sikorsky S-76s and Bell 430s going east of Shelter Island, while single-engine traffic would be dispersed over three different routes inbound from the North Shore route. The goal of the plan is to “get rid of volume over certain neighborhoods on the North Fork,” Smith said.

Grotell emphasized that PlaneNoise data suggests that the entire reason for creating the North Shore route–mitigating noise over central Long Island–could be flawed. Schumer’s office did not provide the ERHC with any data on the number of helicopter noise complaints received tied to operations over the center of the island. “Our data suggests there never was a significant noise-affected population in the center of the island. We had never identified that as a problem. We don’t believe that the North Shore route has provided any mitigation. If anything, it has made things worse. A diversified route structure–north shore, center island and south shore–is a better way to mitigate noise.”