A group of aviators, who have been leading a public campaign to spotlight the fear that town officials may seek to shut down East Hampton Airport as soon as later this year, say that they are working in conjunction with all the aircraft operators who use the airport regularly to develop a “Pilot’s Pledge” that the group hopes will be able to rein in the most bothersome flights in and out of the airport.
The group is seeking adherence to curfews that parallel those imposed by the town in 2015 and 2016, a hard minimum flight level of 1,500 feet, controls on which runways are used by certain aircraft, tighter restrictions on aircraft leaving loud power generators running when on the airport tarmac and a compliance review committee made up aviators themselves who will review flight data at the airport and address violations.
While the the demands of the pilot’s pledge would not be legally enforceable and couldn’t result in fines, the group, which calls itself the East Hampton Community Alliance, hopes that it has devised a system of peer review that will actually be able to pressure pilots into following the guidelines of the pledge strictly and punish those who do not.
Data collected by the town and other outlets about complaints and aircraft data have shown in years past that certain flight patterns, often the choice of a given pilot, have generated more irritation from residents and the group hopes that a peer appeal will be able to keep such pilots on a leash.
“We are pulling all the different operators together — helicopters, the seaplanes, the local pilots — we really want to come up with something that will work for everybody and show the town and the community that the pilots are actually doing something to address the problem,” said Gianpaolo de Felice, a pilot and restaurant owner from Sag Harbor who is one of the founders of the EHCA. “We’re presenting a curfew from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., so during those hours nobody should be using the airport unless it’s an emergency.”
The East Hampton Airport and its impact on neighborhoods surrounding it will be the subject of the latest Express Sessions event on Thursday, March 18, at 4 p.m.
Mr. de Felice and the EHCA earlier this year commissioned an economic analysis of the airport that used some basic assumptions about the local economy and demographic data about those who fly through the airport that aircraft passengers account for nearly $80 million in economic business in the region each year.
The group has acknowledged that it hopes to show to the members of the East Hampton community that the airport is a considerable asset, even for those residents who don’t use it — in the hope that political pressure would convince Town Board members that proposing a complete closure is not what their constituents want.
Councilman Jeff Bragman said that while the EHCA effort is encouraging and worth watching, he is skeptical that any effort from within the aviation community that doesn’t have the teeth of fines behind it will work.
“I’m certainly willing to watch the progress, but I’m not terribly optimistic about it,” Mr. Bragman, who will be on Thursday’s Express Sessions panel along with a representative of the EHCA, said on Monday. “We’ve tried voluntary compliance before and it doesn’t seem to have had a big impact. But they are welcome to try.”
Traffic patterns at the airport were greatly skewed by the pandemic in 2020, with overall flights down considerably and the number of flights by helicopters and seaplanes — the main source of most complaints in a typical year — were only fractions of their past levels. Some charter operators have said that a shift away from the more cramped confines of helicopters, which are by far the loudest aircraft, during the pandemic is likely to become a more permanent trend.
The year also brought new hurdles. Traffic at the airport in January was up nearly 60 percent from January 2020, with nearly double the number of flights from transient aircraft and nearly four times as many total flights by private jets.
New flight routes encouraged by pilots groups in 2020 also brought aircraft over neighborhoods in Hampton Bays and Noyac that had not experienced regular aviation traffic in the past and introduced a new community of critics of the airport’s operations.
And an informal analysis of aircraft data and complaints from residents, conducted by members of the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee, showed that a substantial number of complaints registered by residents were generated by aircraft over-flying the region that were not heading to or from HTO.
The EHCA group has acknowledged that the issues that need to be addressed are varied.
“There are a lot of things we can’t do anything about and we cannot fine or penalize anyone — all we can say is ‘Guys, we are trying to respect the local community and if we want the airport to stay open everyone needs to follow these rules,” Mr. de Felice said. “We are at the point of no return. The conversation is: we either do this or they are going to be talking seriously about closing the airport.”