Drives to Limit Chopper Flights Face Headwinds
A series of developments in recent weeks have both frustrated and encouraged Lower Manhattan residents seeking relief from incessant helicopter noise.
In February, Dan Goldman, the newly elected Congressional representative for Lower Manhattan, introduced the Safe And Quiet Skies Act, a proposed law that would restrict local helicopter flights by mandating strict regulation of commercial air tour operations, including requiring that such tours fly above 1,500 feet altitude and banning flights that generate noise louder than 55 decibels. The same measure would also prohibit tour flights over various kinds of federal land, including national parks, which would keep helicopters away from Liberty. Ellis, and Governors Islands.
“Noise pollution from commercial air tours is a significant disruption to quality of life for New Yorkers on the waterfront,” Mr. Dan Goldman said as he introduced the bill. “The Safe and Quiet Skies Act is a common-sense piece of legislation that will prioritize the well-being and safety of New Yorkers over nonessential helicopter tourism.”
Mr. Goldman’s bill is in some ways a reprise of earlier proposed measures sponsored by Congressman Jerry Nadler (who represented Lower Manhattan for decades, until the 2022 redistricting that moved his constituency to Midtown), which failed to gain passage. One respect in which Mr. Goldman’s bill (which Mr. Nadler is cosponsoring) differs from its antecedents is that it would hold helicopter tour flights to the so-called “sterile cockpit rule,” which requires that pilots focus exclusively on safely operating their aircraft, and would define tour-related functions, such as narration, as outside of the duties required for safe operation. It also contains a new provision that would authorize states and municipalities to impose additional regulations, more stringent than those mandated by the federal government.
Separately, State Assembly member Robert Carroll has introduced a bill in Albany that would impose new fees and penalties on tour operators, by creating taxes for noise and carbon emissions related to helicopter flights. Initial projections indicate that these levies would generate approximately $17.5 million in the first year. “The proliferation of helicopter flights over the City harms both our environment and our health,” Mr. Carroll said. “Helicopters spew out carbon at a rate as high as over forty times that of cars.”
Because both proposed laws have been introduced in the last few weeks, their prospects for passage are unclear. Part of what impedes bills seeking to regulate helicopter flights may be the political influence that often correlates to running a lucrative business in partnership with government. The City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC)—a non-profit corporation that negotiates strategic partnerships designed to harness private-sector resources to public projects, and thus foster economic growth—is in the process of renewing its agreement with Saker Aviation, the private firm that operates the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 on the East River. This publicly owned facility hosts more than 20,00 flights each year (or upwards of 50 per day), the preponderance of which are sightseeing tours. According to documents reviewed by the Broadsheet, the EDC expects to earn at least $25 million over the ten-year life of the new lease.
In February, the FAA and the National Park Service finalized voluntary agreements with four air tour operators, two of which currently fly over Liberty, Ellis, and Governors Islands, and two more that have applied for permission to debut such flights in the near future. The agreements permit flights provided they don’t come closer than 1,000 horizontal feet to Liberty, Ellis, or Governors Island.
The limitation is viewed as meaningless by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who has been a consistent advocate for limiting local helicopter flights over the homes of the New Jersey waterfront residents he counts among his constituents. On February 23, he wrote to the NPS and FAA that, “I am concerned that the voluntary agreements, designed to limit commercial air traffic near Ellis Island and Liberty Island, fail to protect local families who will experience increased noise pollution.”
“Luxury helicopter tours should not—and cannot—come at the expense of families who deserve to peacefully enjoy the limited public spaces we get to call our own,” Senator Menendez added, lamenting what he called “the clear harm posed by these agreements.”
In December, Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed a State bill that would have given City residents legal standing to sue helicopter operators for unreasonable or chronic noise. That measure, which passed both houses of the State legislature by wide magins, would have imposed fines of up to $10,000 per day.
A month before that, in November, startup Archer Aviation announced a partnership with United Airlines that will introduce air taxi service between Newark Airport and the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in 2025. Archer Aviation is one of a half dozen venture-backed firms pioneering eVTOL aeronautics, an all-electric variant on traditional “vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft, which ascend and touch down like helicopters, but cruise in a manner similar to fixed-wing planes. Archer competitor Joby Aviation has announced a similar partnership with Delta Airlines, which will take passengers from Manhattan to LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports via eVTOL aircraft. That plan does not specify which of Manhattan’s three existing heliports the service will use.
Complaints about helicopter noise have jumped in recent years, rising from an average of about three per day in 2016 to more than 2,000 per month currently, according to data from the City’s 311 service.