(photo: Barry Ambrose)

Congress Considers a New York City Helicopter Ban

Some concerns are legitimate. Others make little sense.

In June of 2019, an Agusta A109E crash-landed on top of the AXA Equitable Center building in New York City, not far from Times Square. The helicopter had taken off from a heliport on the east side of Manhattan for a flight back to its home base in Linden, New Jersey. Visibility was poor, and the pilot—the only person aboard—apparently lacked an instrument rating. No one in the building was injured, but the helicopter was destroyed, the pilot was killed, and people in the building were terrified by tremors that “felt like an earthquake.”

The news media widely reported the crash, which has become the door opener for an attempt to greatly restrict helicopter traffic in New York City. Following the accident, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney and two other congressional representatives from the city asked the FAA to ban “non-essential” flights over New York, and on Oct. 28, 2019, they introduced HR 4880, the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019, which would impose such a ban and require the FAA to issue or update regulations to enforce it. Though the bill refers to “flights over major cities” and doesn’t specifically mention any metropolis, its criteria for “major cities” effectively limit its application to New York. Notwithstanding its title, the bill if passed would do little or nothing to make helicopter operations safer.  

Helicopter traffic in the New York City area has been controversial for many years. According to The New York Times, one of the sponsors of HR 4880, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, has been trying to ban all helicopter flights in the city since the days of the Giuliani administration. 

If you’re opposed to such traffic, Manhattan certainly offers plenty of it to complain about. At the Pier 6 heliport alone, 59,000 flights took off in 2015. In addition to medical and government flights, which carry everyone from local police to the President of the U.S., there are tour offerings; charters, card, and share programs like HeliFlite and Sikorsky Shares; and trips in privately owned and corporate helicopters. The latest entrant is Uber Copter, operated by HeliFlite, which started carrying passengers from Manhattan to the JFK airport last July for around $200 a seat. In addition to lending its famous name, Uber is the program’s air charter broker.

Sightseeing tours have long been a frequent subject of helicopter complaints in the city. One website lists 40 such tours. They used to take off from the East 34th Street and West 30th Street heliports but by 2010 were restricted to Pier 6 on the south end of Manhattan island. The city introduced further restrictions in 2016, including a ban on Sunday flights and a cap on flights out of Pier 6 to 30,000 tours per year. Tour flights taking off from Pier 6 must also fly over water instead of over the city. New York City can impose such restrictions because its Economic Development Corporation owns the main heliports. 

As you might expect, the restrictions caused some tour operators to bus customers from Manhattan to New Jersey and conduct the flights from there. The irony is that, by taking off from New Jersey, the operators aren’t subject to the New York restrictions and can fly over the city with impunity.  

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HR 4880 goes well beyond putting further limitations on tourist flights; the legislation seeks to address the problem “once and for all” by prohibiting any “nonessential helicopters” from flying within New York City airspace. The bill would exempt flights in the public interest, including ones for law enforcement, emergency and disaster response, and medical services. Heavy-lift operations in support of construction and infrastructure maintenance and military flights would also not be subject to the ban. According to the sponsors’ Oct. 26, 2019 press release, “the bottom line is, the risks that commuter, charter, and tourism helicopter flights pose to New Yorkers far outweigh the benefit to the very small number of people who use them.” 

One can take issue with this statement on several grounds. First, there is the inconsistency of complaining about the excessive use of helicopters in New York City while claiming that a “very small number of people” use them. The number may be small compared with the city’s population, but I’d guess that the 30,000 tour flights originating in the city alone must carry over 100,000 passengers. 

Second, the passengers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the flights. To the extent that it’s not consigned to New Jersey, the helicopter industry contributes to the New York economy. More important, for many corporations and high-net-worth individuals, access to Manhattan via helicopter is a major factor in the decision to locate their home and business in the city. 

On the other hand, when it comes to risks, it is the passengers and crews who are predominately affected. The legislation’s sponsors’ press release lists the 10 “most known” New York helicopter accidents going back to 1997, some of which involved injuries to passengers and pilots. None resulted in injury to people on the ground; in fact, except for the AXA Equitable Center crash, all the accidents involved plunges into the Hudson or East River. That’s why the AXA incident leads the charge in attempting to construe helicopters as an important safety issue: the helicopter actually crashed on a building. 

Riding your bicycle in the city, however, is arguably more dangerous than taking a helicopter ride. So far this year, about 25 fatalites have resulted from bicycle accidents in New York. But focusing on “improving residents’ safety” is likely thought to be a more effective strategy for banning helicopters than complaining about noise and air pollution. (Helicopters generate many times more carbon dioxide than the average car.)  

But noise is the real issue and a genuine one. Depending on where you live in the city, noise from helicopters can be a major annoyance. The New York Times quoted someone who claimed he didn’t need an alarm clock because he could hear the helicopter engines at 6:30 sharp every morning. 

HR 4880 has languished since its introduction in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and is unlikely to be enacted. It will therefore probably do nothing to reduce noise, but it has got people’s attention. Given the sweeping extent of the ban, there’s plenty of room for compromise, which may be what the sponsors intended. In response to the proposed legislation, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) suggested that New York City reconvene the helicopter task force with a broad range of participants to develop solutions reasonably acceptable to all parties. Let’s hope such a task force can focus on the legitimate concerns posed by helicopter operations in the city.

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