New York/New Jersey Helicopter Traffic Draws Fresh Fire

 - August 23, 2021, 4:11 PM
The West 30th Street Heliport in Manhattan is among several facilities in the New York and New Jersey area in the direct crosshairs of anti-helicopter entities. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Civil helicopter traffic is under fresh attack in New York and New Jersey, with public officials there moving to shut down heliports and otherwise significantly reduce flight operations.

In New York, an attempt by the town of East Hampton on Long Island to block special VFR (SVFR) at East Hampton Airport (KHTO), a move directed at limiting helicopter traffic, has been blocked via a temporary restraining order issued July 30 by U.S. District Court Judge Gary R. Brown. 

East Hampton has a long history of challenging federal preemption when it comes to airspace and airport operations, including a 2016 effort to discriminately apply a curfew only to “noisy” aircraft. The challenge to East Hampton’s SVFR gambit was brought by helicopter operator Zip Aviation and supported by NBAA, the Helicopter Association International (HAI), and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC). ERHC publicly labeled the SVFR restriction “illegal.” A final ruling is expected this fall.

ERHC had failed to reach a voluntary agreement with the airport for this year’s helicopter routing there as per prior years’ practice. However, FAA grant restrictions at HTO expire next month and there is strong local support for closing the airport permanently.  

In 2019, resident noise complaints about the airport exceeded the total number of flights there by a margin of more than two to one. The town board has until September 20 to extend the contract of FBO Sound Aircraft Services or move to close the airport. If East Hampton closes, helicopter traffic there is expected to shift to the privately-owned Montauk Airport (KMTP). 

Meanwhile, the West 30th Street heliport (KJRA) is the latest target in New York City from the Community Board 4’s (CB4) Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee (WPE), which is pressuring the facility’s owner, the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT), to either significantly restrict operations or close it permanently. The heliport has drawn increasing public complaints after becoming a gateway for helicopter ride-sharing service Blade. 

In late July, CB4 wrote to elected federal, state, and local officials charging that the heliport is “a significant source of pollution, noise, and safety issues,” including “toxic fumes [that] fill the air and linger,” conversation disruption, and people “being blown off their bicycles” by rotor wash. “There should be no commercial use of helicopters within the Hudson River Park…We are appealing to you to address these concerns...and make a concerted effort to close the heliport.”

CB4 also complained that the 8,000-gallon fuel tank on the site was a potential terrorist target and safety risk. Separately, CB4 asked the HRPT to eliminate ground vehicle parking at the site and relocate it across the West Side Highway. In addition, it asked for a ban on aircraft idling longer than five minutes. 

CB4’s short-term concerns are part of a consistent end game, which is to close the heliport. In an August 5 letter to HRPT president Noreen Doyle, WPE co-chairs Jeffrey LeFrancois and Maarten deKadt wrote, “We are appealing to you to address these concerns with [heliport operator] Air Pegasus and fix what can be fixed in the short term, while we pursue our efforts for permanent closure of the facility.” 

In New Jersey, bills introduced into the state legislature last year that restrict and/or ban civil helicopter traffic are garnering fresh support. A5514/S478 instructs the state transportation commissioner to create “rules and regulations to reduce the noise generated by helicopters at airports, heliports, and helistops licensed by the state." Another bill, A5515/S479, would ban heli-tourism in New Jersey.