The curfews imposed at East Hampton Airport in 2015 reduced the number of helicopter flights at the airport, shifted the fleet to quieter choppers, and virtually eliminated flights into and out of the airport in the early morning and nighttime hours, consultants told the town this week.
The twin curfews—one that barred all flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and one that restricted especially noisy aircraft to the hours between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.—nudged the nearly 15,000 flights into and out of the airport toward the mid morning and early afternoon hours and toward the use of quieter aircraft in general, a pattern that the consultants told the Town Board meant the new regulations were having their desired effect.
There were 65 violations of the curfews, mostly in the hours and minutes at the fringes of the curfew windows.
“The 65 violations is a remarkably small number,” attorney Peter Kirsch told the board. “And we will probably see fewer and fewer violations going forward.”
Nonetheless, with a third regulation that the consultants had said last spring could have cut the number of flights by 20 percent blocked by a court injunction, the traffic at the airport and the number of complaints it generated continued to climb in 2015.
The 14,757 total take-offs and landings at the airport was an approximately 4 percent increase over 2014, and was paralleled by a 4 percent rise in the number of noise complaints generated by planes and helicopters using the airport. A total of 17,521 complaints were logged with the town during the year.
Helicopter operators, primarily charter operations running shuttle flights to and from New York City on weekends, used fewer of those model helicopters that are particularly loud, so as to escape the restrictions of the more stringent curfews. The total number of helicopters classified as “noisy” under the new regulations, based on their decibel signature, fell by 22 percent—864 fewer flights, overall, in 2015—while the number of flights by quieter model choppers jumped from just 295 in 2014 to 898 in 2015.
The charter fleet also, apparently, shifted to the use of more seaplanes, which do not qualify as “noisy” aircraft and use ports along Manhattan’s East River shoreline, like most charter helicopter companies. The number of seaplane operations at the airport increased by 662 flights, a 54 percent jump. The data, despite still leaving residents across the East End seething over aircraft noise, showed that the town’s efforts were starting to have an impact.
“We saw a shift from the ‘noisy’ to the ‘other’ and we saw the fleet moving in the directions we’d like it to move,” consultant Ted Baldwin of Boston-based airport noise consultants HMMH Inc., told the board and audience of town officials, aviation advocates and residents gathered at Town Hall on Friday morning for the presentation. He noted that while complaints continued to be high, the fact that they parallel the shift in aircraft traffic indicated that the town has a good metric for tracking how the airport effects residents. “The operators made changes, for whatever reason, and people noticed. When operations changed in a positive manner, complaints went down.”
Mr. Kirsch, whose firm Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell has quarterbacked the town’s efforts to rein in noise impacts from the airport, told board members that the effect of the curfews was generally exactly what was intended and that if another regulation they adopted last spring, limiting any individual aircraft to just one trip to the airport each week, hadn’t been stayed by a federal court there would likely have been substantial reductions in flights at the airport. That injunction will remain in place until a federal appeals court rules on the town’s right to impose the restrictions, which is not expected until next fall.
“We were hoping that operators would shift from the noisy aircraft to the unregulated aircraft, and that is exactly what they did,” he said. “If the one-trip restriction had been in place, there would have been a dramatic impact.”
Mr. Kirsh said that when applying the one-flight rule to 2015 flight data, he estimated that there would have been a 15 percent overall reduction in the number of flights and a 50 percent reduction in helicopter traffic.
The small improvements seen thus far have not come cheaply. The town spent nearly $1 million on legal fees defending the new restrictions and other policy changes at the airport against seven separate lawsuits by aviation interests, most of which are in limbo, awaiting the appeals court ruling.
Town budget officer Len Bernard told the board that with the towering legal expenses the airport, which is a self-sustaining fund not relying on taxes, ended 2015 about $413,000 in the red, a shortfall that was covered with money from the airport’s reserves from past surpluses. The reserve fund still stands at about $1.2 million, a healthy cushion, Mr. Bernard said.
For 2016, the board has increased the airport’s budget to $6 million, a level they hope will be supported by forecasts of rising revenues from new commercial leases of airport land and new fees for parking and other services at the airport.
“We feel real comfortable going into the year that we’re in pretty good financial shape on the airport,” Mr. Bernard said.
Supervisor Larry Cantwell said that the town is intent on continuing to manage the airport without accepting funds from the FAA, which would limit their ability to regulate airport traffic.
“I’m confident that the airport can sustain itself without FAA funding and with the capital improvements we need to make,” Mr. Cantwell said.
The town has spent more than $1.2 million on maintenance and upgrades to the airport’s facilities in the last two years and has millions more in capital improvements on the horizon pending a number of ongoing facility studies.
Some pilot and aviation advocates challenged the board on its course, and its ability to keep the airport self-sustaining while maintaining its safety. Sound Aircraft Services manager Cindy Herbst asked the board if it had calculated what the financial impact of the one-trip limitation would be on the revenues generated from landing fees at the airport, and the ability to fund maintenance without FAA help and Kathryn Slye, an advocate for local pilots, said the town has “systematically and aggressively started targeting small local pilots to create a chilling effect.” She claimed the town had started charging pilots who base their planes in airport hangars the same landing fees they charge shuttle flights and corporate jets.
Mr. Cantwell said that the fees charged to small pilots were not part of town policy but that one of the court rulings in the lawsuits brought by aviation groups forced them to change the landing fee structure. But he pledged that the town will not be passing along hefty fees to pilots based at the airport.
As for its new efforts to rein in aircraft traffic for the coming season, Mr. Kirsch advised that the town plug its ears and stay its course. With the lawsuits pending, Mr. Kirsch recommended the town not make any new restrictions on the airport.
“We have to be careful that we don’t take action that would undermine the position we’ve taken in the lawsuits,” he warned.
Residents of the neighborhoods beneath flight paths leading to the airport, including some on the North Fork, said that while the curfews offered some minor relief, what is needed, is an overall reduction of flights into and out of the airport, and patience is wearing thin.
“People are still unhappy and are complaining,” Wainscott resident Carol Mandel said. “I think this demonstrates the importance of the third regulation.”
At the outset of the effort to rein in the airport’s impacts, Mr. Cantwell said the board had declared its goal to be a 60- to 70-percent reduction in the number of helicopter flights at the airport. That is still the ultimate goal, he said, imploring residents to try to be patient with the slow legal process.
Some residents did applaud the small improvements seen already from the curfews.
“It was nice,” said Quiet Skies Coalition Chair Kathleen Cunningham, “to sleep through the night and not have a jumbo jet roll me out of my bed.”