FAA Confounds Copter Control


By Karl Grossman

If there was any question about the Federal Aviation Administration being out to lunch when it comes to doing something about the noisy helicopters ferrying people between Manhattan and the Hamptons, the presentation last week of an FAA official reinforced its nowhere status.

FAA Regional Executive Manager Diane Crean came before the Suffolk Legislature and declared that the FAA is against a bill authored by Legislator Edward Romaine that seeks to diminish the noise of the choppers by establishing a minimum 2,500-foot cruising altitude for helicopters in Suffolk.

Ms. Crean started off by declaring that the federal government pre-empts all other government jurisdictions in regulating aircraft. The federal government, she said, has “supreme” power in this area through the FAA.

But, said Legislator John Kennedy of Hauppauge, this “is an issue that has affected all of us…My constituents ask me what to do about the overbearing noise of helicopters.” They “vibrate” the windows of their houses. “I would ask you: what are we to do?”

Ms. Crean announced a telephone number Long Islanders could call: 631-755-1300. It is the number of the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Farmingdale, she said. But, she went on, the main function of this office is looking into “low-flying” aircraft that are a “hazard to people and property on the ground.” But, as to altitude, choppers sometimes need to fly very low, she said. They “need to maneuver up and down.”

Mr. Romaine of Center Moriches jumped in and pressed Ms. Crean about the FAA’s standard for the “minimum altitude” for choppers.

It is 300 feet, said Ms. Crean. .

“Can anybody fly lower than that?” Mr. Romaine asked.

Yes, said Ms. Crean, if “visual conditions” warrant it.

“You mean 200 or 150 or 100 feet,” he observed.

He asked if the FAA had “any set flight plans” for the large number of choppers which have been flying between Manhattan and Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, the Southampton Village heliport and the East Hampton Airport and creating a huge racket for people below.

No, said the FAA official.

Mr. Romaine summed up the situation. The FAA’s stance is that “we control” chopper traffic “because we have the law” but, in fact, it doesn’t control it. It will allow choppers to fly at any altitude and without any plans. The FAA policy on choppers, he said, is: “Essentially, you’re on your own.” Mr. Romaine said if in Suffolk County “we do nothing else but wake people up about this,” it would be important.

“Quite frankly,” Mr. Romaine told the FAA official, the FAA has “failed in your responsibility.” He said “we’re happy to let the federal government run” aircraft operations, but that must mean “you run it.”

He said he would “let my bill go away” but only if there is a “solution” to the helicopter noise problem. It is winter now, he noted, and the problem has lessened, but it will “start up” again in the spring and extend through the summer and fall—and could be worse than ever. One chopper company, he said, has already begun advertising six round-trip helicopter flights between Manhattan and the Hamptons for $28,000, “a real bargain…This issue is not going to go away.”’           

Then Mr. Kennedy announced from behind the legislature’s horseshoe-desk that “I just dialed 631-755-1300” on his cell phone. “I got a recording.”

The FAA, as Ms. Crean’s performance demonstrated, like so many supposed federal regulatory agencies, is not a watchdog but a lapdog for the industry it is supposed to regulate.

When it came to the Shoreham nuclear plant, Suffolk County stood up to a federal bureaucracy similar to the FAA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which also claimed federal “pre-emption.” By vigorously taking on the federal government on Shoreham legislatively, before the NRC and in the courts, Suffolk shone the light and it won. What many said could never happen did: a dangerous facility was stopped from operating. A victory over the noisy Hamptons helicopters is similarly possible. Passage of the Romaine bill is important as a tool in this new needed challenge.