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New helicopter shuttle service to East Hampton sparks concern

05/26/2019 6:00 AM |

Concerns about helicopter noise are mounting after a new luxury helicopter service announced plans to shuttle passengers between Manhattan and East Hampton ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

Wheels Up, a company that allows members to book private aircraft, has partnered with HeliFlite, a helicopter charter service, to offer 40-minute flights from Manhattan to East Hampton Airport in Wainscott on Fridays beginning in mid-June. One-way flights start at $995 and can be booked through the Wheels Up app.

Similar services have become more prevalent in recent years, marketed as a way to beat the highway traffic.

At a Southold Town Board work session Tuesday, attorney James Harmon, who provides legal counsel to the town’s helicopter noise steering committee, said he has been trying to work with the Eastern Region Helicopter Council toward a solution to the unpopular North Shore Route used by pilots.

A Federal Aviation Administration rule approved in 2012 requires helicopters to fly over the water across Long Island Sound — one mile offshore — and to go around Orient Point rather than fly over houses.

But the rule allows pilots to deviate from the prescribed route when necessary, for safety reasons, due to weather conditions or to transition to the South Fork.

Local officials have said this only makes the situation worse, because it provides a loophole that allows helicopters to cut across the North Fork on their way to East Hampton Airport as they move south.

Mr. Harmon said the ERHC asked him to draft a potential agreement that would have required pilots to fly an all-water route around Plum Island, but ultimately no agreement was reached. “Unilaterally they have decided this year not to have specific routes, but are going to instruct their pilots to fly as they choose to disperse the noise caused by helicopters,” he said.

Alternative routes include flying over the South Shore and middle of Long Island in addition to the North Shore Route, Mr. Harmon said.

He also said the ERHC has urged pilots to fly “50-50,” meaning taking a different route to and from the airport. “Whether any of this happens or not remains to be seen,” Mr. Harmon said. “We’ll know the answer to that.”

Representatives for the ERHC and Wheels Up did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The steering committee plans to monitor helicopter traffic over Memorial Day weekend and into the season and report back to the Town Board.

But town officials worried that helicopter noise will only worsen as helicopter services — dubbed the “Airbnbs of the sky” by Supervisor Scott Russell — soar in popularity. “By scattering, they’re going to reduce the volume coming over the North Fork, but some of that volume will be offset by the growth of helicopter service to begin with,” Mr. Russell said during Tuesday’s work session.

Mr. Russell also called on the FAA to act. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included an amendment requiring the FAA to consider the noise impacts on affected communities, improve altitude enforcement and consider alternative routes, such as an all-water route over the Atlantic Ocean.

A workshop-style public hearing was ultimately held in Riverhead last fall, but left attendees less than satisfied. “What they offered was a dog and pony show,” Mr. Russell said.

In a May 10 letter to FAA acting regional administrator Maria Stanco, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) requested that true public hearings be held on the North Fork and that an all-water route be implemented ahead of the peak season.

“The ‘workshops’ held on Long Island last year did not meet the clear mandates of the law and insulted my constituents. The use of the questionable, insufficient format not only silenced the voices of the public, but was perceived as a clear attempt by the FAA to diminish the serious impact of the NSR and the negative quality of life impacts that resulted to the North Fork,” Mr. Zeldin wrote.

The congressman also criticized the FAA for implementing new routes for neighborhoods in northeast Queens affected by aircraft noise.

A six-month trial requiring helicopters and sea planes fly farther out over the water began in October. Mr. Zeldin said the measure was “a slap in the face” to North Fork residents, who have sought similar relief for several years.

Southold Town Councilman Bob Ghosio, who serves as liaison to the helicopter committee, fears the problem will only intensify. “The industry is growing, obviously. [$1,000 a seat] is a lot of money to avoid traffic on the expressway,” he said. “This is starting to get way out of hand.”

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