NJ Pols take aim at NYC helitours

 - March 3, 2015, 11:55 PM

A coalition of elected New Jersey democrats from local governments and the state legislature want to put New York heli-tour operators out of business.

The coalition is pushing passage of a state bill that seeks to eliminate New York-area helicopter tour flights over the Hudson River by cutting off access to their home bases at New Jersey airports and heliports. The coalition said the move was necessary to curb what it claimed were 700 daily helicopter air tour flights in the area and is particularly critical of flights over the New Jersey side of the Hudson near Hoboken, N.J.

The legislation would prohibit air-tour helicopters from using aviation facilities licensed by the State of New Jersey. Under state law, airports and heliports must be licensed by the state. Five companies operate air tours in the New York area with a combined fleet of approximately 25 helicopters used for both tours and charter. These companies maintain and store their helicopters at three principle locations in New Jersey: Kearny Heliport (65NJ) and the airports at Linden and Lincoln Park.

The bill is co-sponsored by N.J. assembly speaker Vincent Prieto and state senator Nicholas Sacco, chair of the N.J. Senate Transportation Committee. It is also supported by U.S. senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

The legislation was immediately denounced by local helicopter industry trade association, Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC). In a statement, ERHC vice president Jeff Smith said, “The helicopter industry is a critical contributor to the New Jersey and New York economies–and to our region's emergency response infrastructure. Our industry has worked to dramatically improve safety and reduce noise in this airspace.”

Smith took issue with the coalition’s claim of 700 daily tour flights, telling AIN, “The 700 number is ridiculous. On the busiest day there are maybe 300 and those days are seldom. The average is probably closer to 180 to 220 per day.” He went on to note that the New York air-tour business is highly seasonal. “Christmas and Easter week are real big weeks, but from January to Easter it is very slow. Summer is busy but it drops off again in the fall. It ebbs and flows.” At most Smith estimated that there were 15 to 17 helicopters operating in the New York City area that are exclusively devoted to air tourism.

The FAA has limited helicopter flights over the Hudson to a maximum altitude of less than 1,000 feet following comprehensive rule changes for the VFR corridor there instituted after the 2009 fatal collision of an air-tour helicopter and a Piper Lance that killed all nine aboard both aircraft. Smith said all New York area helitour flights “fly as high as possible.” He added that air-tour operators already have instituted noise-abatement procedures that include voluntarily keeping all tours over water. All New York City air tours take off from and land at Wall Street Heliport.

Appearing at a February press conference in support of the bill, Menendez decried the “incessant noise and pounding headaches” produced by the “growing swarm” of helicopters over the river and said, without elaborating, that “the threat to public safety is very real and very troublesome.” Menendez left little doubt that his end game was to put the region’s helicopter tour business out of business. “At the end, I hope they get nothing,” he said. Last August Menendez publicly called for a total ban on air-tour helicopters in the area and pledged to seek a federal solution to the problem.

Smith thinks that discriminatory state regulation of heliport and airport use would violate federal grant assurances and be de facto illegal.