Last week’s Press Sessions discussion focusing on the East Hampton Airport and its future was a start of a conversation that needs to dig much, much deeper. The fact that the debate wasn’t altogether acrimonious was a good start. The fact that it was a rare face-to-face exchange of information from two deeply entrenched sides is, frankly, troubling, since that’s the only way a real solution will be found.
Federal Aviation Administration grant assurances are set to expire in about 18 months, and East Hampton Town, which owns the airport, will become relatively unshackled in what it can do with it.
Officials have said that, at the busiest moments in summer, the airport now has more frequent landings and takeoffs — about two-thirds of them serving people from afar, and including an increasingly large number of helicopter flights — than LaGuardia. Neighbors plagued by helicopter noise and concerned about safety and the environment want the town to close the airport completely, or to “re-imagine” it in a scaled-back or completely different incarnation — as a solar farm, for example — and the town is considering these options.
Pilots, charter companies and service operators want the airport to stay open. Some, to their credit, are pushing for changes, like over-water flight paths and a future fleet of quiet electric seaplanes, to constructively answer some of the criticisms of residents, both within and without East Hampton Town, whose lives are affected by airport traffic and aircraft noise. Some say closing the airport would simply move helicopter traffic, in particular, to other parts of the region — to floating helipads in local bays, to the Montauk Airport or to the Southampton helipad, or the airport in Westhampton. Others say it would make sense to redirect at least some of the noisiest traffic somewhere else, to a helicopter facility, say, on a site that is less populated.
Missing from last week’s conversation, unfortunately, were representatives of the helicopter industry. With so many helicopter charter companies originating out of town, those whose lives are affected by traffic at the local airport seem increasingly to regard them as locusts that will simply buzz from one spot to another without regard for the community they descend upon. Stakeholders from the helicopter industry need to make it clear that they are more than carpetbaggers by showing that they are willing to make life easier for people living within and near East Hampton Town.
Notably missing from the overall conversation, as several panelists pointed out at last week’s event, has been the FAA, which historically has fought the town’s attempts to curb airport noise by imposing curfews and limiting the number of flights. Rightly so, the town recently changed its strategy for trying to set limits at the airport, turning away from the idea of expecting cooperation from the FAA and toward exploring both the consequences of and the prospects for using the airport in some different way. A key first step will be to assess the local economic importance of the airport — something the town should do, seeking facts upon which the discussion can be supported.
If all those who have a stake in its future can come to the table without demonizing or ignoring one another, there are sure to be at least some remedies to be found. Last week’s discussion was a decent beginning.
It is worth remembering, throughout what is sure to be a long process, that it is the taxpayers of East Hampton Town who own and operate the airport. They have every right — and the responsibility — to decide its future.