Helicopter traffic at East Hampton Airport was down more than 90 percent over the Memorial Day weekend compared to Memorial Day 2019, and aircraft traffic overall was down more than 80 percent, as the coronavirus continues to stifle the commuter air-shuttle flights that have driven up airport traffic steadily over the last decade.
And the response to the epidemic by one of the largest shuttle companies to the East End is also hastening is shift away from the use of helicopters, to seaplanes, to lessen the noise impacts on those living under flight paths.
One year ago, data compiled by East Hampton Town shows, there were 965 flights into or out of East Hampton Airport between Friday morning and Monday evening of Memorial Day weekend. For the first holiday weekend amid the coronavirus epidemic, there were just 187.
The number of helicopter flights, which are typically dominated by commercial operators that either charter their aircraft or sell commuter trips by the seat for between $700-$800 each way, dropped from 358 in 2019 to just 32 this past weekend.
Corporate-sized jets, which are mostly either privately owned or chartered privately, dropped from 139 to 51, and flights by turboprop planes, which include the seaplanes increasingly common with the commuter companies, fell from 186 last year to 29 this year.
The drop in overall traffic has been a godsend, some critics have said, but it’s the near vanishing of helicopters from the skies around the airport that draws the biggest applause.
“Suddenly, it’s like it was 15 years ago,” said Barry Raebeck, who lives on the fringe of the airport grounds and co-founded a group that lobbies to have the airport closed. “I would say I heard/saw six [helicopters] this weekend. That would have been 10 minutes worth last year. Suddenly, there’s quality of life again. I’m thinking, gosh, I could set my hammock up again. I took it down eight years ago.”
The coronavirus epidemic is affecting air traffic to the airport in other ways that could have a more lasting impact as well. The commuter flight reservation and concierge company Blade expects most of its Manhattan-East Hampton bookings this year to be aboard seaplanes rather than helicopters, a company representative said this week, because they allow for more separation of passengers.
With more room to spread out passengers worried about social distancing, seaplanes are proving more useful in the wake of the initial spread of the virus.
Blade spokesperson Simon McLaren said the company has removed seats from both its seaplanes and helicopters to allow for more spacing.
But the company, which manages one of the largest networks of reserved-seat flights to the South Fork, said that a shift in preference of the seaplanes — both by the company and by its clientele — was already happening and that Blade expects the dominance of propeller-driven seaplanes to continue even after the concerns about coronavirus wane.
“It’s a shift we were engineering, but our fliers like it better,” said Simon McLaren, the head of communications for Blade. “There’s more room, and some people are more comfortable on a plane than a helicopter.
“We like the smaller noise footprint,” he added, also noting that seaplanes cannot takeoff or land on the waters of the East River, where they pickup and disembark passengers at 23rd Street in Manhattan, so seaplane flights are limited to a much more constrained window of operations.
Seaplanes have exploded into a major portion of the flight traffic at East Hampton Airport just in the last five years. After East Hampton Town imposed curfews at the airport in 2015 and 2016 that limited especially noisy aircraft — mainly large helicopters — to a much smaller landing and takeoff window, commercial operators started to employ seaplanes for their flights from the East Side of Manhattan to East Hampton because the seaplanes qualified for the less restricted curfews.
Shoreline Aviation, which flew the most flights into the airport by a single operator last year, uses seaplanes exclusively for its shuttle flights. Earlier this year, Shoreline said it and other companies are working on plans for seaplanes that run on battery-powered engines — the first of which flew last fall — to further reduce noise
In 2016, the first year the town started tallying the number of flights by seaplanes, there were 1,472 operations by seaplanes — counting each take-off and landing individually, so approximately 730 flights. In 2019, there were 3,296.
According to town data, helicopter trips in 2019 had decreased very slightly from the previous year to 9,056 — down only 42 total operations, or one-half of 1 percent of the total number of helicopter flights. Helicopter traffic made up about 30 percent of the overall total, down from 32 percent in 2017 and 2018, thanks to a jump in the number of commercial seaplane flights to the airport.
Total aircraft traffic in 2019 was 29,820 takeoffs and landings, still well below the all-time high of 32,471 set in 2007.
In 2007, the busiest year on record at the airport, the 6,788 helicopter flights made up just 20 percent of the overall traffic.
While helicopter and jet flights have increased substantially in the years since 2007, the number of flights by small propeller planes have fallen from some 20,000 operations in 2007 to about 16,000 last year.
Overall traffic over this past weekend may have been tamped down somewhat by the poor weather over the weekend. Traffic by piston aircraft, which are primarily the small privately owned planes based at the airport, were down from 190 to just 45 this year, even though airport operators and pilots said that such flights have been more or less on par with years past during the epidemic, since more recreational fliers are free from work obligations.
Blade’s total number of flights to the South Fork has stayed about flat over the past three years, Mr. McLaren said, a fact he chalked up to market “saturation” of the demand for $1,500 weekend round-trips.
Blade’s flights to East Hampton Airport in specific, however, were down about 20 percent before this year, Mr. McLaren said, largely because more of its flights are now going to other destinations like Montauk and Southampton.
The company employs float planes for its shuttle flights to Montauk’s small airport and helicopters that land at the Meadow Lane helipad in Southampton, on the narrow strip of barrier beach near Shinnecock Inlet.
Looking at its future, Blade does not expect the steep reductions in people looking for fast rides to their weekend retreats in the Hamptons. Mr. McLaren chalked up most of the reductions to the fact that many, if not most, people with second homes on the South Fork have been living here for the last two months. The flights the company has arranged, have mostly been populated by those starting east and heading into the city for short stay and then returning. Ultimately, that pattern should reverse itself again.
“Our customer base is in the city, but now they are out here and flying back to the city,” he said. “As offices reopen, I think we’re expecting an increase in volume.”