Schumer measure would force action on helicopter noise

JOHN DUNN PHOTO | Senator Charles Schumer at a news conference in Port Washington Feb. 18, announcing the Senate had passed an FAA Reauthorization Bill that ordered the FAA to impose mandatory rules to limit helicopter noise.

Championing Long Islanders who say that noise from passing helicopters is intolerable, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is trying to force the Federal Aviation Administration to implement rules to do something about it.

Sen. Schumer, declaring a “major breakthrough” in the effort to see something done by the FAA, said this week he had sponsored an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill that gives the agency a 12-month deadline to adopt regulations to reduce the amount of helicopter noise Long Islanders have to endure.

The senator’s amendment does not push for any specific regulations, including a rule proposed by the FAA at his urging last May that  would make mandatory a currently voluntary North Shore helicopter pathway a mile offshore over Long Island sound from Oyster Bay to Orient Point. The proposal was opposed not only by helicopter operators but North Shore residents.

The Senate passed the bill on Feb. 17. The full House has yet to consider its version, which does not include a similar amendment. A spokesman for Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said he would try to add identical language to the House bill, which probably will not come up for a vote for several months.

If the Republican leadership does not allow for amendments, Mr. Bishop’s spokesman said, the Schumer provision would still be on the table when a House and Senate conference committee negotiates a final version to be submitted to the president for his signature.

In addition to setting a deadline, the Schumer amendment “provides explicit legal authority for the FAA to implement helicopter flight regulations, shielding the agency from potential litigation,” according to Sen. Schumer’s office.

Published last May, the FAA’s proposed rule making the North Shore route mandatory remains “under review,” according to an FAA spokesperson. The spokesperson would not say why or comment on any legislation pending in Congress. A comment period on the proposal ended last summer. Sen. Schumer himself wrote in opposition to the proposal after it became clear many Long Islanders did not want all helicopter traffic concentrated on one route.

Helicopter and aviation industry organizations also have opposed the rule, saying it would create a collision hazard by concentrating traffic, and that it would raise costs by requiring more fuel as well as GPS equipment for precise for navigation.

Some critics questioned the FAA’s authority to mandate fixed routes and minimum altitudes for helicopters operating under “visual flight rules,” which normally allow helicopter pilots wide discretion in dealing with navigation, weather and other concerns.

Sen. Schumer said his amendment to the FAA bill “puts all ambiguity aside and for the first time gives the FAA unquestionable authority to put helicopter regulations in effect while providing a hard and fast deadline to start providing some relief from ear-shattering helicopter noise.”

The current voluntary North Shore route puts traffic at least a mile offshore, and at least 2,500 feet high, between Nassau County and Orient Point. However, pilots may turn inland when they are approaching their destinations — either Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, a helipad on Dune Road in Southampton or East Hampton Airport — where most helicopters bound for the East End are headed.

That means North Fork, Shelter Island and some South Fork residents are still exposed to noise from helicopters passing overhead.

East Hampton town and Suffolk County officials have established voluntary East End arrival and departure routes aimed at reducing helicopter noise from those overflights. They call on pilots heading east to cross the North Shore at the mostly undeveloped former Grumman property in Calverton and avoid the most populated areas as they fly to Gabreski Airport. Pilots heading further east are asked to follow Sunrise Highway to Shinnecock Canal then continue offshore, over Peconic Bay, through the South Ferry channel between Shelter Island and the South Fork before turning south and inland near Sag Harbor toward East Hampton Airport.

Many pilots heading to East Hampton ignore the voluntary route that calls for a turn inland at Calverton. They continue east off the North Shore and turn inland over the North Fork because a it’s shorter route.