Aviators and residents of the neighborhoods beneath flight paths to East Hampton Airport traded pleas, statistics and a few barbs at an East Hampton Press-led discussion of the airport and its uncertain future last week.
The forum on Thursday, January 30, at Rowdy Hall, the latest edition of the Press Sessions luncheons, shed light on some of the ways those in the aviation industry are already trying to press incremental changes that might lessen the noise impacts of the airport, as well as on the belief of some aviation critics that anything short of closing the airport entirely will effect any meaningful change.
A few new details emerged. The largest employer at the airport, Sound Aircraft Services, is working from within the industry to urge helicopters to follow routes that remain over water as long as possible to lessen noise over homes. Charter seaplane company Shoreline Aviation is looking to a future fleet of all-electric seaplanes that would be quieter and greener.
Aviators said that even closing the airport would not solve the noise issue generated primarily by helicopters, which would just find other places to land — including, some speculated, on floating helipads in local bays — in even greater numbers, and with even more impunity from control.
There were critics who were adamant that little or nothing would be accomplished through tinkering with routes and incremental changes in aircraft traffic patterns, and maintained that the airport should simply be done away with.
Others said that substantial reductions in the volume of flights to and from the airport — a change that has been won through threats of imminent closures in other municipalities — could perhaps make enough of a difference to be bearable.
In less than 18 months, East Hampton Town will no longer be tethered by Federal Aviation Administration grant requirements. The FAA and federal courts have said the town still may not regulate flights at the airport in the way it wants to — but it would be left largely free to simply close the airport altogether.
None of the current Town Board members have said they are in favor of closing the airport, but nearly all have said that it is a possibility that they are not willing to discount if changes in flight patterns, especially those by helicopters, are not made.
Before they could make any decision, board members have said, they will need strong empirical data on just what the airport means to the Town of East Hampton.
“It may not be an either-or choice, and we should focus on a process informed by facts, not fear,” Councilman Jeff Bragman, the Town Board’s airport liaison, said at Thursday’s sold-out luncheon in East Hampton Village. “I’ve lived a couple of miles away since 1984, and I remember a very different airport. We cannot stay on the course that we have, of unregulated growth at the airport.”
But, he added, if changes or even closing the airport would simply push the problem elsewhere, that is an equally poor result. “I will not accept a solution that harms our neighbors to protect ourselves,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a moral or defensible policy.”
At the top of the list of analyses the town needs to do before it can seriously begin discussing the possibility of closing the airport is an economic impact assessment that tallies the total economic benefit the airport brings to the town, from the hourly salaries of Sound’s staff to the impact on eight-figure values of oceanfront estates, and everything in between.
A study commissioned by aviation industry interests in 2014 ballparked the annual boost from the airport at $48 million. Critics quickly dismissed the study as irrelevant to the town’s considerations, because, they say, it includes such elements as the income of New Jersey-based helicopter companies and their pilots’ salaries, along with other non-local benefits.
Evan Catarelli, operations manager for Sound Aircraft Services, the contracted fixed-base operator at the East Hampton Airport, with the airport code HTO, said that the airport directly employs about 60 people in full- and part-time positions at various times of the year. Sound Aircraft has 25 employees during peak season, he said.
“Sound Aircraft has been working in conjunction with East Hampton Town’s airport management and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council to come up with solutions, including routes and compromises,” Mr. Catarelli said. “We’re encouraging the helicopter council to adopt routes that remain over water for the entirety of the North Shore and South Shore.”
Sound circulated fliers with a plea, “Save HTO,” that appeals to pilots to follow routes that keep their aircraft over water as much as possible. The chart they have drawn up shows helicopters remaining out over Long Island Sound waters all the way around Orient Point, to avoid flying over North Fork neighborhoods that have risen to the fore of complaints about the airport.
Eric Atkins of Shoreline Aviation, which runs charter seaplane flights between East Hampton and New York City, said that his company has set a goal of becoming the first to have an entire fleet of electric aircraft. They are racing against a Vancouver company that in December made its first flight with one of its de Havilland seaplanes outfitted with a fully electric motor.
With more than 200 electric aircraft at various stages of concept and development, Mr. Atkins said, a quieter, cleaner future is on the horizon, though likely still many years away.
“We recognize that the best way to coexist is to reduce our noise footprint and become greener in the process,” he said. “It won’t be overnight, but the progress is undeniable.”
But words like “encouraging” and “years away” fell flat with those from areas impacted by aircraft noise. And simply shifting routes over water would do nothing to help those in the neighborhoods of Noyac, Sag Harbor and Wainscott, where there is no more water to fly over on approach to the airport.
“Nothing that has not already been considered will make much difference,” said Patricia Currie, a Noyac resident and co-founder of Say No to KHTO, a group of residents advocating for the closure of the airport, using an alternate airport code for East Hampton Airport in their name. “There is no way to manage the airport.”
Ms. Currie said that with the FAA and helicopter companies clearly unwilling to work with the town to lessen impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, and pilots who, she said, too commonly fly in a “reckless” manner, the town should start compiling the pieces of the foundation for showing that the airport is of little benefit to most of East Hampton, and a major detriment for some.
Other residents who live near the airport voiced concerns about safety from helicopters flying too low in bad weather and the high level of traffic using the airport.
“I lived under the Echo route last summer, and on a foggy day, I feared for my life,” said Tom MacNiven, a Wainscott resident. He said he thinks the airport should remain, but in a different form than it is now. “I think the long-range on this is to find a way to make it not so bad. It should be a local airport for local pilots.”
Kent Feuerring, the president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, a pilots group, said that the calculation Ms. Currie and others are making about closing the airport is missing the harsh reality of what would actually follow.
“Closing HTO will not eliminate the helicopter noise,” Mr. Feuerring said. “The demand for commuter helicopter flights into the Hamptons will continue to exist. I believe the helicopter companies will adapt and seize the market share lost by fixed-wing airplanes and jets by the closure of the airport. They will simply use Southampton heliport, Montauk Airport or use floating helipads in the bay, which are already in use in Miami.”
Tom Bogdan, founder of Montauk United, a citizens group in the easternmost hamlet, said that he has been assured by helicopter pilots that closing HTO would send the majority of commuter traffic helicopters east to Montauk instead.
Some of the strongest criticism of the aviation industry, and its role in the problems caused by the airport, came from U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin’s office. Mark Woolley, Mr. Zeldin’s district director and a frequent stand-in for issues pertaining to the East End, blasted helicopter companies and “cowboy” pilots for wanton disregard of the impacts their flying habits have on those in the homes below their flight paths.
Mr. Zeldin has repeatedly called on the FAA to make more forceful demands about the routes helicopters follow as they make their way to East Hampton, and has butted heads with the agency.
Mr. Woolley applauded the town’s efforts in 2015 to impose curfews and restrictions that would reduce the number of commercial charter flights to the airport, both of which were ultimately thrown out by a federal court.
“They were reasonable and we supported them,” Mr. Woolley, who lives in Mattituck, said. “We think the airport is a matter for local control.”
Mr. Woolley said that the congressman’s official stance is that the FAA should dictate that all flights using the North Shore Route remain over Long Island Sound until they are east of Orient, and then follow the waters of Gardiners Bay south to East Hampton, minimizing the noise over homes.
Short of that, he added, pilots do hold the power to follow such a route themselves, as well as adhere to other noise-reducing habits, like maintaining heights of 2,500 feet when flying over land, but have rarely done so.
“The helicopter pilots have the ability to work with us if they want,” Mr. Woolley said. He jabbed at a catchphrase used by the helicopter council: “Fly Neighborly.” “That’s a heck of a narrative for a group that has no intention of ‘flying neighborly,’” he quipped.
Conspicuously absent from last week’s discussions were any representatives of the helicopter companies that generate millions in revenues through the shuttle flights they fly between New York City and East Hampton. Representatives of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council were unable to attend last week’s forum because of an industry conference on the West Coast, and several of the charter helicopter companies that operate at HTO did not respond to requests that they send representatives for the panel.
Pat Trunzo is one of the founders of the Quiet Skies Coalition, a neighbors group that has tried to work with airport managers and pilots to lessen noise impacts on residents. He is also a former East Hampton Town councilman.
At Thursday’s discussion, he said that years ago the airport would close on days when fog or low clouds made flights into the airport riskier. He also said that the pollution concerns about the level of aircraft using the airport now are being underestimated.
But, he said, the town has much work to do to determine what the benefits of the airport are before it can start talking about closing it.
He also called the town’s own efforts to work through the FAA toward a solution to noise impacts “a fool’s errand” and nodded to the decades it took to get the industry-cozy agency to push aircraft manufacturers toward making quieter jet engines — one of the few successes in lessening the noise impacts of airports.
The agency has shown a similar knack for foot-dragging on addressing noise impacts from helicopters at small airfields and helipads, he said.
“You can hear in Mr. Woolley’s comments the level of frustration of working with the FAA,” Mr. Trunzo, a member of the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee, said. “That’s a sad commentary, when even a congressman can’t get the ear of a federal agency.”