Few pilots are complying with East Hampton Airport’s voluntary helicopter flight paths, and the town received 22,700 complaints this year alone, which is 350 more complaints than the total number of flights into and out of the airport, according to several consultants who presented their findings to the East Hampton Town Board Oct. 30.
At a special meeting at the Cedar Street emergency services building, the town’s attorneys and consultants laid out the opening salvos of their argument for “use restrictions” that the town can put in place at the airport after the Federal Aviation Administration mandate that the town not restrict the use of its airport expires at the end of this year.
The town’s aviation attorney, Peter Kirsch, consultants Henry Young and Les Blomberg and airport budget and finance committee member Peter Wadsworth all presented the results of a complex series of data the town has been gathering at the airport since 2012.
The town uses a program called PlaneNoise to track noise complaints at the airport, a company called Vector Airport Solutions to track the exact details, such as tail numbers, of individual aircraft that lands in East Hampton, and a program called AirScene to track the flights as they arrive and depart from the airport.
“Each one by themselves is not as valuable as all combined,” said Mr. Kirsch. “Our
data since 2012 is very good.”
Mr. Kirsch said “use restrictions” includes a broad range of actions the town could take to control its airport, including only allowing certain types of aircraft, limiting the number ofaircraft that can land in a given time or restricting the hours of operation of the airport.
“The public input portion of this process is critically important,” he said, adding that the town will be looking for extensive public comment to bolster its legal justification for any use restrictions. “It’s not just a game…. Community reaction, participation and public comment is really important.”
Mr. Blomberg analyzed helicopter flight compliance with the town’s three voluntary approach and departure paths, which was pretty shabby.
He judged flights to be compliant if the helicopters were flying at at least 3,000 feet and in the approved flight path when approaching or leaving the airport.
Only 3.9 percent of helicopters that flew east over the Barcelona Neck route were compliant, while 5.4 percent of arrivals over Jessup’s Neck were deemed compliant. He said 1.9 percent of flights departing from the airport over Jessup’s Neck were compliant, even though the Jessup’s Neck route is not approved as one of the airport’s official departure routes.
The southern route over Georgica Pond saw the best compliance, with 37.7 percent of arriving aircraft and 29.7 percent of departing aircraft adhering to the proper route.
Mr. Blomberg said 40 percent of the flight data he analyzed wasn’t complete enough to rate the complience with the flight paths, but “it looks like it’s less compliant.”
“My professional intuition is the final numbers will be less,” he said.
Mr. Blomberg also analysed data on the correlation between decibel level and the annoyance level of people who are subject to aircraft noise. He said there’s a large range of decibel levels that people find annoying, which depends in part on the frequency of the noise, which explains why people find helicopters so much more annoying than fixed-wing aircraft.
“Low frequency noise is more problematic,” he said. “It goes through walls easier. It sometimes causes rattles.”
Mr. Young presented various methods that could be used to measure noise, since the FAA’s official calculations are made using a standard that averages noise over the course of a year.
This can be problematic for airports like the one in East Hampton, which has wide seasonal variations in the level of air traffic.
Mr. Wadsworth said that, while 33 percent of the traffic at the airport is helicopters, 68 percent of the noise complaints received this year were due to helicopter traffic. He said the airport received an average of two complaints for every helicopter flight into the airport this year, while they received just .8 complaints for every jet flight and .4 complaints for every other fixed-wing aircraft flight into and out of the airport.
He said most of the complaints came from Southampton Town, followed by East Hampton, Shelter Island and then Southold. On a more detailed basis, 23 percent of the complaints came from Noyac, 17 percent came from Sag Harbor, 15 percent came from Shelter Island and 13 percent came from the North Fork.
“An awful lot of complaints are coming from outside the Town of East Hampton,” he said.
Mr. Wadsworth said the complaints spike on Monday mornings between 7 and 8 a.m., and on Fridays and Sundays between 5 and 6 p.m.
Mr. Kirsch said East Hampton is “legally required to examine all reasonable alternative ways to address the problem,” which starts with creating a precise definition of what the problem is.
He said the town could then implement restrictions ranging from the type of aircraft that can use the airport to time-based restrictions to fee-based restrictions, which could involving charging more to use the airport during peak traffic times.
“We need public comment on what we’ve heard today, from one end of the spectrum to the other,” he said.
Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty said at the meeting that the European Union has already requested that helicopter manufacturers find technology that cuts noise in half by 2020.
“Grand Canyon National Park and the European Union have established requirements limiting the types of helicopters that can use airports,” he said. “It’s relatively easy to do with what is essentially a recreational airport like East Hampton.”
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele urged the public to take a close look at the data presented at the meeting, which is available on the town’s website here.
“I thought the data presented today was of monumental use to the community and the town board,” he said. “It lends itself to a reasonable and supportable approach to policymaking.”
“Voluntary compliance is a failure. It’s been a failure for a long time,” he said. “It’s nice to have the data to support that.”