Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Plan to Restrict Flight Paths, to Hush the Blender Over Long Island

Published: February 19, 2012

Howard M. Lorber, a businessman who has been flying a helicopter between the Hamptons and the city for a decade, still savors the thrill of the ride: when he flies along the South Shore of Long Island, he rides by Coney Island and checks up on one of his businesses, Nathan’s Famous; when he travels by the North Shore, he gazes at the sprawling estates dotting the Gold Coast.

But starting this summer, Mr. Lorber’s view from above might be restricted to the water. The Federal Aviation Administration, at the longtime urging of Senator Charles E. Schumer, intends to adopt regulations to eventually ban most helicopters from flying directly over Long Island, except in emergencies.

Under the proposals, which are a response to years of noise complaints, helicopters bound for the Hamptons would be forced to skirt the shoreline. That would keep them away from favored routes over the North or South Shore, or down the center of the island along the railroad tracks.

Fliers like Mr. Lorber said the quality of the ride might suffer. And the changes would add about seven or eight minutes to the trip, increasing costs.

“Generally, the most direct route is over land,” Mr. Lorber said. “Helicopters are expensive. So it’s going to cost you a little more.”

Some fliers suggested that the restrictions could be dangerous. Lorenzo Borghese, a pilot of Italian royal descent who appeared in the ninth season of “The Bachelor” on ABC, recently hopped on a helicopter to the Hamptons to check out an $8.9 million estate he was interested in buying. He said that the skies were clogged enough already.

“Imagine taking a four-lane highway and making it smaller,” Mr. Borghese said. “It’s a horrible rule. The whole thing of the helicopters is to make things quicker.”

The regulations aim to stop almost 10 years of complaints from Long Island residents over the helicopters hovering endlessly above, especially during summer weekends. Mr. Schumer said that helicopter noise ranked in the top five complaints among his Long Island constituents.

“Talk to anyone who lives in scores of communities from Floral Park and Port Washington,” Mr. Schumer said. “It’s an awful disruption when you invested your savings in your home and you can’t enjoy your house or sit in the backyard from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”

Long Island residents, who often encounter noise from planes arriving and landing at Kennedy International Airport in addition to the helicopter noise, said they would welcome the change. Mary-Grace Tomecki, a Floral Park resident who lives near the train track route, said that during the summer helicopters passed overhead every five minutes and it sounded like “being in a blender.” She said it made it difficult to tend to the morning glories and tomatoes she grows.

“It would be an incredible improvement in quality of life,” Ms. Tomecki, an academic adviser at New York University, said of the ban. “It means actually being able to have a barbecue on Friday night and be able to talk.”

Long Island communities and politicians have been trying for years to reduce the noise. In 2008, the F.A.A. introduced voluntary regulations encouraging helicopter pilots to fly along the coast of the North Shore. Mr. Lorber added that local airports had also introduced rules. For example, helicopters at Southampton Heliport can take off only at certain times. Helicopter pilots who violate these rules could face fines and lose flying privileges.

Robert Grotell, special adviser to the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, said data showed that helicopter pilots had complied. A study his group conducted during the most recent Fourth of July weekend showed that 93 percent of helicopters followed the requests made by the F.A.A. He added that helicopter pilots had been using the central track route less frequently.

“We have been using the North Shore route, and our compliance numbers have been very, very high,” Mr. Grotell said.

But Long Island residents disagree and point to the endless racket they still hear above. Sue Auriemma, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Manhasset along the North Shore route, said that shortly after the voluntary rule was introduced, the noise dropped. But now she hears a helicopter pass over her home at 6:45 every morning that makes her windows and dishes vibrate. The helicopters continue through the day, she said, adding that her family tracks them online by the tail number, altitude and destination airport.

“It was as though the agreement went out the window,” Ms. Auriemma said.

The path to the proposed helicopter flight restrictions has been somewhat indirect. In May 2010, the F.A.A. proposed a rule mandating that helicopters traversing Long Island travel by a northern route and stay at least 2,500 feet in the air along the coastline. Mr. Schumer asked the F.A.A. to add a South Shore option.

After the proposals seemed to stall last year, Mr. Schumer tried to include them in an F.A.A. reauthorization bill that passed in the Senate. When that version fell through, Mr. Schumer started working with Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, on an alternative.

Last month, the two men agreed that the F.A.A. would complete regulations for the North Shore route by Memorial Day and start enforcement by the Fourth of July weekend; plans for a South Shore route would be started in the coming months. Mr. Schumer said he was confident the regulations would move forward this time.

“I have the commitment from the secretary of transportation,” Mr. Schumer said. “He understands the problems.”

That decision worries helicopter industry leaders, who fear that the regulations will have national implications. Matt Zuccaro, president of the Helicopter Association International, said that for decades helicopter companies had worked with communities on a voluntary basis.

“If this is going to be the model where the F.A.A. is going to be mandated and react to every noise complaint or somebody saying, ‘I don’t like helicopters,’ I don’t know where the end of this is,” Mr. Zuccaro said. “Where are we supposed to fly?”

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