A flying buddy emailed me about the big noise flap at East Hampton Airport near the tip of New York’s Long Island. In fact, I’ve been watching since The New York Times covered it this summer. Now, with federal grant assurances set to expire Dec. 31, there may be a tricky crossroads ahead for general aviation.
Bucolic eastern Long Island is where many well-off New Yorkers escape to cooler climes in group summer rentals or expensive second homes. Many are considered “outsiders.” And as the rich get richer, the divide with locals gets wider. Some even see an ironic further divide between the “average rich” and the new “super-rich” in this affluent area.
Many of the super-rich arrive on summertime Fridays aboard large business jets or the air taxi seaplanes and helicopters serving Manhattan’s riverfront air terminals. The 60-minute flights are a vast improvement over a congested four- to five-hour drive. And air taxi fares can get down to $500-600 with new cost-sharing programs. Business is booming.
So are complaints from longtime locals and those who bought property to get away from city noise. Increased seaplane traffic and booming helicopter ops have regenerated organized opposition. Among remedies tossed around are slot restrictions and outright bans on some aircraft classes/types.
One more inexact system would have the town classify aircraft in three groups: noisiest, noisy and least noisy!
Another proposal would ban helicopters and seaplanes entirely.
Still another would put the airport on a 9-to-5 schedule and close it before and after banking hours. And when open, the airport would be limited to four operations per hour!
I’m sure FAA lawyers are rolling their eyes. But all this is for real because the FAA usually falls back on grant assurances and they expire Dec. 31. Apparently, it’s been the requisite 20 years since KHTO accepted its last major federal grant.
There are plenty of consultants on the scene, of course. Long Island’s major newspaper, Newsday, noted that the town’s legal consultant advises that a best option might be night or early morning curfews. Banning aircraft types is complicated and hard to implement, she notes. She’s right, despite her embarrassing observation that banning aircraft is “an art form.” Oh, my!
The Friends of East Hampton Airport say the town’s recent $60,000 noise study is “deliberately misleading and purely political.” They say the study conflated 2014 noise observations with older 2013 data. (The study found that every HTO flight measured within 10 miles of the airport exceeded the town’s 50-70 dB noise limit at some point. But airport defenders say helicopter approaches and departures are being conducted at higher altitudes this year.)
Facing regulation of aircraft under a town’s local noise limit is a daunting prospect. Airport backers charge that such proposals arise from “…the town simply not understanding basic facts of what it is doing….” Yet foes insist that “If the town does not accept federal money, that would clear the way for the Town Board to impose restrictions on traffic.”
Tellingly, study consultant Young Environmental Services notes that aircraft noise can be more disturbing against the quiet backdrop of Long Island’s eastern tip. For sure! Experts have long known that noise complaints grow with neighborhood affluence. (Ironically, National Public Radio just aired a program on the social science of “the wealth effect” including a reported decrease in compassion among the wealthy. I’ll leave that tender territory to others!)
But those who invest in peace, quiet and (in “The Hamptons”) exclusivity are going to be more sensitive. Even I’m an example, having retired to a remote forested spot on the Florida coast. A lifelong aviation advocate, even I react to regular over-flights from intense professional pilot training nearby.
East Hampton’s situation has many wrinkles. Yes, seaplane traffic is up and helicopter traffic has skyrocketed 40% over 2013. The New York Times said operations this past July 4 weekend hit 797 compared to 189 in 2013. The new BLADE helicopter service alone ran nearly 100 trips that holiday. The FLY THE WHALE seaplane service flies a reported 20 flights to and from HTO on summer weekends. Another service flies 10 more.
So complaints are way up, but wait! Anti-airport groups placed ads in local newspapers prompting calls to airport complaint lines. Some 24,000 calls came in from 633 households. Yet analysis showed the fingerprints of “a campaign.” The top 10 complainers each called in at least 400 times. One household submitted 2,800 complaints.
On July 25, The New York Times made much of the area’s “simmering grievances in class and cultural differences.” One summertime resident said, “No matter who you are, you hate those guys who get off those planes.” But The Times also found irony in this tony town’s troubles, since observers see “a battle between the haves and the have mores.”
Another Times piece concluded, “It is easy… to mock the grievances of those driving their $40,000 Volvos to their $1 million vacation homes against those spending thousands on helicopter rides to their $10 million houses….” A local councilman chimed in that it was all a battle of “the 2% against the 1%.”
Lingering resentment from the 2008 economic meltdown plays a role. One resident told The Times that, “Quality of life is truly diminished for commercial greed and the convenience of the same people who burned the economy.” Another added, “When I look up at small airplanes and choppers, I see a fleet of middle fingers across the sky.”
The good news is that most say everyday GA is not the problem. One local told the media, “I have no problem with a Cessna coming over….” Even the town’s legal consultant noted, “Setting high fees could have ‘unintended consequences’ limiting use of the airport by local small-plane pilots who, it was agreed at the meeting, are not part of the problem.”
That doesn’t mean tempers aren’t running high. That same consultant’s “characterization of FAA’s legal stance on fees was immediately disputed by two other attorneys,” media reported. And a local Cessna pilot told the press, “I’ve been called a wealthy old man, a cowboy, morally corrupt, a 1% and an outside agitator. I can assure you, I’m none of those things.”
One town official lost his re-election bid over this brouhaha. His replacement, an anti-noise candidate, is now showing battle fatigue. “It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys — 85% to 90% of my time is spent on the airport!”
Unfortunately, GA is similarly “the wishbone” in this turkey. Light GA may be off the hook, but corporate aviation, air charter, helicopters and seaplanes are in the hot seat. And GA advocates insist that if we don’t hang together, we’ll hang separately. Sacrificing one GA sector for another lays us up for “divide and conquer” strategies.
“What a yarn! What a yarn!” as fictional newspapermen used to spout in those old movies. The local Independent concludes, “How much control the town gets after expiration (of FAA grant assurances) is a debate among attorneys.”
No doubt! But also of concern is a potential split between the interests of big jet/air taxi/helo operators and small private plane pilots.
This one bears watching.