New FAA helicopter routes due by July

JOHN DUNN PHOTO | Senator Charles Schumer at a helicopter noise news conference in Port Washington last year.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to adopt the proposed North Shore helicopter route, designed to lessen helicopter noise over residences, by July 4, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer.

The route would require helicopters to fly offshore and at an altitude of at least 2,500 feet. But one local helicopter noise activist said the move is all but meaningless for the East End because it does not address the issue of helicopters crossing the North Fork on their way to the Hamptons.

The FAA, said Mr. LaHood, “is 100 percent committed to finalizing regulations on the use of the North Shore route by helicopters.

The proposed rule would require helicopters to fly over water rather than land and at a high enough altitude to reduce noise when flying over Long Island. Working with all stakeholders, we intend to have a final rule by Memorial Day weekend, to go into effect before the Fourth of July.”

Mr. LaHood said he is working on North Shore plan specifics, as well as proposed over-water helicopter routes for the South Shore.

Mr. Schumer (D-Brooklyn) said he had hoped to get the helicopter route included in FAA’s 2011 Reauthorization Bill, but “it was blocked by the Republican-led House, at the industry’s behest.”

Because of this, he was then able to convince Mr. LaHood to enact the route as an FAA regulation, which does not require a vote of Congress.

“Secretary LaHood’s strong and unequivocal statement should serve as a wake-up call to the helicopter industry,” Mr. Schumer said. “Long Island will not continue to be the Wild West for low-flying, disruptive and noisy helicopters.”

The FAA’s plans do not sit well with the Eastern Region Helicopter Council.

“At Senator Schumer’s request, in 2007 we agreed to follow the North Shore route,” said council chairman Jeffrey Smith.

“Unfortunately, this restricted flight plan resulted in a highly concentrated and condensed flight pattern for all helicopters over the North Shore. This in turn created a higher frequency of noise for those residents affected and dramatically exacerbated the existing noise concerns.”

The ERHC recommends reinstating a “diversified route structure” that will distribute helicopter activity more evenly between the North Shore, the center of Long Island and the South Shore and alleviate the increase of helicopter traffic over one area.

Joseph Fischetti, a Southold engineer who represents Southold Town on helicopter noise issues, said the FAA’s action is no reason for the East End to celebrate.

The problem is not how high helicopters fly along the shore, but where they turn over land on the way to airports in Westhampton Beach and East Hampton, he said.

“The 2,500 feet on the North Shore is not going to help us,” he said.

He believes the answer is for the FAA to open a new South Shore helicopter route, since pilots routinely follow the North Shore and turn south over Mattituck and Cutchogue, to take advantage of an approved helicopter route through LaGuardia Airport in northern Queens.

“If it’s easy to get through JFK, the pilots will use it,” Mr. Fischetti said. Since the copters are headed to South Fork destinations, it makes sense for the FAA to establish a viable South Shore route, he added.

The North Fork’s communities are not seeking to divert all helicopter flights, he noted.

“If we could mitigate some of this traffic by having some of them fly the southern route, we’ll do that,” said Mr. Fischetti. “We’ll take our share.”

Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association, said residents there had many complaints about helicopter noise, although he said it had been reduced in the past year or so because some pilots had voluntarily agreed to fly offshore. He said the economy may also have muted the problem, as fewer people can afford helicopters.

As for Mr. LaHood’s announcement, Mr. Bail said he’s “cautiously optimistic. We have to see the details. My concern is that they are going to resolve the problem for Nassau County and western Suffolk and neglect the East End.”

County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who has been working for several years to relieve helicopter noise problems in his district, also said he’s cautiously optimistic.

“We’ve been here before,” he said. In 2009, Mr. Schumer held a press conference in Smithtown to announce the new helicopter regulations that never became reality, Mr. Romaine said.

“I will give a lot of credit to Senator Schumer for persevering and getting Secretary LaHood to say he will issue the new routes,” Mr. Romaine said. “I’m very optimistic but I want to wait for the final regulations to come out in July.”

Mr. Romaine said the technology already exists to reduce helicopter noise by having them operate in what’s known as “whisper mode.”

He said some military and CIA helicopters already use this technology.

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