East Hampton Town can now decide whether to close or restrict operations at its municipal airport in Wainscott, after assurances it made to the Federal Aviation Administration decades ago to keep the airport accessible to many aircraft as a consequence of taking FAA grant funding expired on Sept. 26.
The town, which is in the midst of a major public outreach about the future of the airport, held four public listening sessions in September, on the heels of a summer-long series of presentations on various aspects of the airport’s operations, including its economic impact on the community, the effect on the environment both now and if it closed, and on where aircraft could potentially end up re-routing if East Hampton closes or curtails operations.
Consultants working for the town announced in September that surveys of passengers who take flights to East Hampton showed that 40 percent of passengers traveled to points west of East Hampton Town after getting off an aircraft, while 60 percent stayed in town, giving a bit more of a picture of potential future flow of traffic.
Sarah Yenson, a senior consultant at East Hampton’s airport consulting firm HMMH, gave a presentation Sept. 7 of a “diversion study” conducted by her firm, which examined the total amount of air traffic that currently goes to the East Hampton Airport, and how the flights could potentially be diverted to four other nearby airfields, including Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, the privately owned Montauk and Mattituck airfields and a small heliport in Southampton Village.
“We don’t want to simply displace a problem we already have on some other area of our town. This is something we’ve taken a great deal of interest in,” said Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc at the Sept. 7 presentation.
Using data on current aircraft operations at the East Hampton airport, which have averaged about 28,000 per year in recent years, Ms. Yenson said the study broke down those aircraft operations by the type and size of the aircraft and then determined whether those aircraft could use other nearby airfields, taking into account restrictions on nighttime traffic, instrument approaches and whether “touch-and-go” landings of three minutes or less, often done during pilot training, were allowed at other airfields.
Ms. Yenson said the study found that 9,351 of East Hampton’s annual flights could conceivably land in Montauk, the bulk of which would be piston and turboprop planes. Jets and helicopters currently need permission to land at the Montauk airport, which is privately owned and prohibits night and touch-and-go landings.
The consultants estimated that Montauk could see 374 additional helicopter operations and 47 additional jet operations per year if every flight that was able chose to use the Montauk Airport instead of East Hampton.
“If they all went to Montauk, that’s how many could operate,” said Ms. Yenson.
“That’s the ultimate worst case scenario,” cautioned Mr. Van Scoyoc. “That’s not representative of what would actually happen.”
Crunching the numbers further, Ms. Yenson said that, according to statistics of its annual numbers of operations Montauk Airport provided to the FAA, the airport would currently have about 245 operations per day during the peak month of August, or 16 operations per hour. Incorporating all the traffic from East Hampton that could land in Montauk would increase those numbers to 320 operations per day, or about 21.4 operations per hour, increasing the traffic there by 1.3 times the existing rate.
Ms. Yenson said the consultants do not have much data on passenger preference for local airports other than East Hampton, beyond the statistic that 40 percent of current traffic would be going to points west of East Hampton, a far greater travel distance from Montauk than from Wainscott. She added that Montauk also has no gas or maintenance facilities.
The town’s consultants are currently working on crunching the data from a series of surveys earlier this year of passengers on flights to East Hampton.
Crunching the same numbers for the publicly owned Gabreski Airport, the consultants found that Gabreski could accommodate nearly all of the aircraft type that use East Hampton Airport — about 27,856 operations per year. During the peak month of August, Gabreski could see a total of 6,964 operations that would otherwise have gone to East Hampton, or 17 operations per hour. The airport currently supports about 34 hourly operations in August, so the air traffic would increase by 1.4 times the current hourly rate during August.
Ms. Yenson said some of the drawbacks that may make Gabreski a less likely choice include more expensive landing fees and a lack of available aircraft parking.
The Mattituck airfield could support 15,306 of East Hampton’s operations — about half of the current traffic, 3,050 of which are during the peak month of August. That would mean an additional 140 daily operations in August, 9 per hour, up from 97 daily operations during the peak month now, extrapolated from FAA data, or 2.4 times the current rate of traffic.
“I would pretty much bet money that Mattituck would not be happy with that,” said Ms. Yenson. Mattituck, which is privately owned, also does not allow nighttime or touch-and-go operations, has limited aircraft parking and no maintenance services.
Ms. Yenson added that Mattituck is on the North Fork, requiring ferry travel or a long overland trip to reach the South Fork after arriving, which could be a major disincentive to passengers looking for an alternate airport.
The final alternative, the Southampton Heliport, is a small heliport with no services in a residential area of Southampton, and could only accommodate helicopters. It also allows parking of the helicopters for only 20 minutes.
Ms. Yenson said the counsultants found that 6,546 of East Hampton’s annual operations could land there, or about 2,300 in the peak month of August, or 74 daily operations, five per hour. The heliport reported just 400 operations for the calendar year from Oct. 2015 to Sept. 2016, and the consultants did not find any more recent data on operations there, but using those figures, traffic to that heliport could increase by more than 20 times the last reported rate.
“This is reflecting the worst case scenario, based on these airports being able to absorb the traffic from East Hampton,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. “In our economic study, 50 percent of those questioned said they would find alternative ways to come to East Hampton (if the airport closed). It might behove use to take a look at various factors and do a review of what the most likely outcomes would be, as well as what would ultimately be theoretically possible.”
The consultants didn’t interview the managers of the other airports in the interest of privacy, according to Ms. Yenson, but East Hampton Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said she would like to have their input in the study.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez added that she said she knew Montauk had a higher landing fee for helicopters than East Hampton, and she would like to see more current numbers for the Southampton heliport.
“This helps us substitute facts for fears,” said Councilman Jeff Bragman. “This is a very good step forward based on quantitative data.”