Study Of East Hampton Airport Traffic Leaves Many Unknowns For Montauk, Southampton

Passengers departing East Hampton Airport via helicopter on Monday afternoon. The town is analyzing how many helicopter and other plane flights would shift their flights to Montauk Airport if the East Hampton Airport were to close or place new limitations on the types of flights. Kyril Bromley

If East Hampton Airport were to close, most of the displaced air traffic would likely shift to Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, analysts told East Hampton Town officials this week — though hundreds of helicopter flights per month could be expected to instead head for Montauk Airport or the helipad in Southampton Village during the summer.

The town’s consultants on Tuesday presented the Town Board and those tuned in to its virtual work session a draft “diversion study” that looked at the types and numbers of aircraft that use East Hampton Airport currently, and how those flights could be re-routed if the airport were closed or had new constraints placed on the types of aircraft that could land there — both options the East Hampton Town Board is currently contemplating.

The consultants detailed how the three other South Fork options for aircraft landings compare to East Hampton Airport in terms of the receptiveness to flights.

The Southampton helipad is only open to helicopters; and only one at a time; and none at night. It is also at the remote far end of Meadow Lane, a two lane road that winds through 3 miles of marshlands and oceanfront mansions.

Large jets would be excluded from using Montauk airport entirely because of its short runway and many of the thousands of flights by other small airplanes that come and go through East Hampton Airport currently would be greatly limited by the lack of fuel and other services, room to park for more than a few minutes and other logistical considerations, the consultants said.

But the airport in Montauk could, theoretically, be a destination for all of the more than 4,700 helicopter flights that flew into and out of East Hampton Airport in 2019.

Gabreski could handle nearly all of East Hampton’s traffic — more than 28,000 individual flights of all kinds in 2019 — with it’s only substantial limitation being the availability of aircraft parking on its already busy tarmac.

The bulk of the data in the presentation by consultants from HMMH, a transportation engineering company that has led most of the tracking of airport traffic for the town over the last several years, was only a “worst case” scenario of possibilities at each airport and did not include management decisions that may mean far fewer options for aircraft.

“We need to talk to them about what they can accommodate,” said Kurt Hellauer, one of the HMMH consultants, on Tuesday, “because I suspect it’s nowhere near these numbers.”

The study presented Tuesday is the last of a package of studies of the airport and the impacts its closure might have presented to the Town Board as it marches toward a decision later this year about the airport’s future.

On September 21, the town, which owns the 570-acre airport, will be freed from 20 years of strings attached to Federal Aviation Administration grants that have prevented it from affecting any sort of meaningful constraints on flights at the airport. The town will then have the option to close the facility permanently and re-purpose the land, or only shut it down temporarily and then re-open it with new negotiated limitations on the types aircraft that can use its runways.

At various times in recent months, officials have harked to possible restrictions like banning helicopters and/or large jets entirely or just banning commercially operated flights in whatever form, like the thousands of pay-per-seat charter flights that sparked the explosion in helicopter traffic over the last 15 years and led to the town’s now seven-year battle to rein in the airport’s traffic.

The town has seen reports on the effect that any closure or flights constraints would have on the local economy and environmental conditions and how the airport property could potentially be used for other purposes.

But how a change in its use would affect the Montauk Airport has been the most eagerly anticipated since it is the geographically closest alternative and the only one of the currently existing options that would likely be appealing to anyone traveling by air to destinations in East Hampton.

Montauk residents have sided with aviation groups in opposing any proposal to close East Hampton Airport because of the fear — often stoked by aviation advocates — that a closure would bring a deluge of new air traffic, particularly helicopters, into Montauk.

And helicopters may indeed be the most likely of the current traffic to set their flight plans to Montauk.

Consultant Sarah Yenson told the Town Board on Tuesday that of the approximately 28,000 operations — aviation lingo for an aircraft taking off or landing — that take place at East Hampton Airport in a given year, about 16,000 of them were by aircraft that could physically land or takeoff at Montauk airport.

But many of those — possibly most — would be unlikely to do so.

Ms. Yenson noted that surveys of passengers using the airport have shown that about 40 percent of those who fly into East Hampton Airport are actually headed to destinations to the west in Southampton Town.

While the consultant did not offer a direct implication of that statistic, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that it is presumed that nearly all of those Southampton-bound passengers would be unlikely to see flying into Montauk as an time-saving option.

The supervisor also nodded to another survey conducted by town consultants in which about half of passengers said if East Hampton airport were closed they would find other means of transportation to the region.

“So that 60 percent is cut to 30 percent maybe,” the supervisor said. “So it would behoove us to try and take a look at all these various factors and try to conclude what the most likely outcomes are.”

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said the saw the estimates of diverted helicopter flights to Montauk and Southampton as off target of a realistic accounting of what would happen if East Hampton airport were closed.

Ms. Yenson noted that the current HMMH study really only looks at the possible options for flights being re-routed, and that there are a number of additional factors that would need to be taken into account to determine the “likely” dispersion of East Hampton’s flight traffic if the airport’s options were changed substantially.

“There’s a lot of reasons why people might not want to choose Montauk … but we aren’t able to dig into these,” she said.

The analysis presented on Tuesday also did not account for the possibility of alternatives that are not currently being utilized.

Seaplanes, which already make up a large and growing portion of the commuter flights from the city, could potentially land in Shelter Island Sound near Sag Harbor and shuttle passengers ashore by boat — a possibility that aviation advocates have said is a likely scenario should the East Hampton Airport close to commuter traffic.

There have also been discussion of floating helipads anchored in local bays, from which passengers could be shuttled ashore by boat — something that has been put to limited use in Miami, Florida.

Melissa Tomkeil, the president of the aircraft charter service Blade, called in to Tuesday’s virtual meeting and harked to some of the unknown alternatives. She told board members that her company has conducted surveys and discussions with their customers about how a closure would affect their plans.

“They are going to continue to fly in the event of any closure or restrictions to East Hampton,” she said. “So it’s important to note that we will likely be increasing flights to Montauk and places like Sag Harbor and Westhampton in the event that East Hampton is no longer available.”

But she also made an appeal for a resolution that keeps East Hampton airport open and still allows her company’s flights — Blade does not own aircraft, it just books the flights, similar to how Uber and Lyft operate — to use the airport.

She said the company believes that it is possible for helicopters to use routes that fly over the ocean to and from Wainscott, transitioning over Georgica Pond to the airport to reduced the number of homes that are impacted by helicopter noise.

“We are happy to discuss any sorts of compromises for noise abatement routes,” she said, spotlighting some of the possible options. “We do believe after this busy season with the noise abatement routes that were in place that there is a lot of viability to an all over-ocean approach, particularly for all helicopters … We work with a majority of the helicopter operators that use the airport and we were really pleased to see over-ocean routing this season.”

The airport primarily uses the so-called Sierra route, which takes aircraft over Georgica Pond to the south of the airport, for departures only except when air traffic is light. The “preferred” approach route in 2020 and 2021 took most helicopters in Noyac — setting off a chorus of complaints from residents there, even with the smaller number of total flights during the pandemic.

The town will begin hosting its community outreach workshops later this week. Originally planned to be held in-person in Montauk and Wainscott, the effort has been forced online by COVID-19 considerations — much to the chagrin of at least one of those leading the charge against closing East Hampton Airport.

“Unfortunately, it deprives Montauk of its one and only time to be heard,” said Tom Bogdan, who has been an outspoken critic of the airport closure because of its presumed impact on Montauk. “Over the past two weeks, awareness of the airport issue has skyrocketed. I would estimate there would be close to a thousand Montaukers who would come to that meeting that you decided to cancel.”

Mr. Bogdan proposed that the town hold the meeting on September 13, which was originally to be at the Montauk Playhouse, outdoors on the green in downtown Montauk for the sake of safety while still allowing people to attend in person.

“Montauk deserves that meeting,” he said. “Montauk is the most affected if that airport closes. These are your people … we deserve our say.”