Eight hundred and seventy-two flights coming in and out of East Hampton Airport during Memorial Day weekend—Thursday, May 22, through Monday, May 26—caused a lot of uproar among residents who live under flight paths.
This year, 40 percent of the flights were helicopter operations, which was the biggest issue for residents, according to Airport Manager Jim Brundige, who presented his report to the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday.
Of the 475 total complaints filed with the town, which is almost double what was reported last year during the same time, 302 stemmed from helicopters—64 percent of the complaints.
Helicopter pilots used the November route across Noyac and Sag Harbor, and the Sierra route on the south shore up across Georgica Pond and Wainscott. Both routes were used equally among arriving flights, but the south shore route was used mostly for those departing.
Flights using the November route, which connects to the Federal Aviation Administration’s North Shore Route, drummed up 32 complaints, flights on the Sierra route caused 12 complaints, and flights taking the Echo route, which goes between the airport and Shelter Island, pulled in 18 complaints.
Of the complaints logged, Noyac households called in the most—21 complaints, compared to the 12 logged from the same area last year. Wainscott residents called in nine complaints this year and five last year, according to Mr. Brundige.
During Memorial Day weekend, both the airport’s traffic control tower staff and Jeff Smith, the vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, complained that the south route was causing visual issues for traffic control tower staff. According to Mr. Brundige, the staff and helicopter pilots reported that the route procedure was not working because the tower staff were losing sight of the helicopters, which posed a potential unsafe situation.
To fix the problem, Mr. Brundige, airport staff and Town Councilwoman and board liaison Kathee Burke-Gonzalez met on Friday, May 30, to tweak flight procedure for those on the south route.
They changed it so arrivals would continue eastbound past Georgica Pond at 2,000 feet and then take a left turn to approach the airport for landing. Those departing were told to climb straight out to 1,500 feet and then turn left, while continuing to climb above 2,000 feet, to join the route going westbound.
Mr. Brundige told the Town Board that it was the best route for safety—but Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said there will ultimately be more complaints.
“I see houses,” he said. “We’re bringing traffic in over residential areas, Georgica Pond and east of the airport, and exiting over more residential homes on the west side of Wainscott. It’s very easy for me as a lay person and a board member to jump to conclusions here. Based on the weekend, you’ve got almost a doubling of traffic … no matter how you look at it, there is substantially more traffic over this period of time, contributing to the conflict with air traffic routes and substantially more complaints. This tends to lead me to the conclusion that we need limits here.”
The Town Board will consider two resolutions to increase revenue at the airport on Thursday. The first would increase landing fees by 10 percent, and the second would increase fuel flowage fees to 30 cents a gallon, from 15 cents. Each change would add $100,000 to the town’s revenue stream, according to Ms. Burke-Gonzalez.
She said in 2002, the town did a study with Department of Transportation grant money, which recommended that the town start to increase the fuel flowage fee back then, when the price of fuel was about $2.50 per gallon. Now it is about $7 per gallon, she said.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the airport’s financial advisory committee “did their homework” and found that 30 cents per gallon is the going rate among other airports.
Town Board members agreed that this change is a stop-gap measure and that they would like to increase the cost each year by percentage so that it would increase on its own.
Cindy Herbst of Sound Aircraft Services, which provides fueling for the airport, asked the town to meet with her before they make a decision since doubling the fee would create a hardship.
“I don’t know we can do that and pass it on to customers,” she said. “I just don’t think a 100-percent increase is justifiable.”