Thursday, April 27, 2017

Westchester County Airport (KHPN) curfew broken nearly 6,700 times in 2 years (with video)

The often-invoked overnight curfew at Westchester County Airport is less a rule and more a polite suggestion — and it's one routinely ignored by airlines and private plane operators, a Journal News investigation found.

Officially known as the Voluntary Restraint From Flying, the 32-year-old county policy — which has no enforcement mechanism — ostensibly prohibits planes from taking off or leaving between midnight and 6:30 a.m. each morning. The measure is meant to keep the airport a good neighbor to nearby residents in Purchase, Rye Brook and North Castle.

An analysis by the Journal News/lohud, however, found the curfew has been broken over 3,000 times each of the last two years, an average of more than nine flights a night — and several of the most egregious violators are commercial airlines.

The county has received 85 noise complaints this year, 30 of which were related to overnight noise.

"We all chose to live here near an airport," said Rye Brook Mayor Paul Rosenberg, who said he was surprised about the frequency the curfew was violated and noted no one had come to him regarding airport noise since his 2013 election.

"That being said, while we all use the airport and it is an important part of the community, we do expect them to be good neighbors," Rosenberg added. "Obviously, you can’t have 100 percent compliance with a nighttime curfew, there are air traffic delays, planes are going to come in late."

The issue of the curfew comes at a time when the county-owned airport is in a state of flux. Last year, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino proposed reshuffling passenger limits, rankling the surrounding communities, a move that was later tabled. In the fall, he pushed to privatize the airport, a proposal the county Board of Legislators is now pushing forward with, hoping to strike a contract by the end of the year.

Privatization requires federal approval, plus the consent of 65 percent of the airlines operating at the airport.

Who's breaking curfew?

The county's Airport Advisory Board, an appointed board of representatives from communities around the airport, receives a monthly report that lists the number of past-curfew takeoffs and landings and names which commercial airlines or private companies broke the policy more than six times that month. The reports only provide numbers, not specific flights that were routinely problems or the times they took off or landed.

Those documents show that between 2015 and 2016, the curfew was violated nearly 6,700 times — an average of 279 times a month or just over nine times a day, according to county Airport Advisory Board documents.

Last year, the most egregious violator was identified in documents as Atlantic Southeast Airlines. That company changed its name to ExpressJet in 2012, and flies out of Westchester County Airport under operating agreements with United and Delta airlines.

The records show it violated the curfew 396 times in 2016.

The airline said in a statement that most of the violations were due to weather conditions and they ask the county for permission when it is necessary to fly during the early morning hours.

Including ExpressJet, five of 2016's top 10 violators were commercial airlines. The remainder were private aviation companies like NetJets.

Air Wisconsin, which flies under the American Airlines name, violated the curfew 222 times between January and August 2016. Endeavor Air, which files as Delta, violated the curfew 205 times in calendar year 2016, and JetBlue 190 times. PSA Airlines, which does business as American, violated it 74 times.

Professional sports teams are often discussed as the most egregious curfew violators, but they only show up explicitly a single time in the board documents, with "Delta Air Lines (Sports Teams)" mentioned as violating the curfew seven times in November 2016.

County Legislator David Gelfarb said in the absence of an enforcement mechanism, the county tries to persuade airlines to comply with the curfew.

“There’s no question, it’s a voluntary restraint from flying," said Gelfarb, a Democrat who represents airport neighbors Harrison, Port Chester and Rye Brook. "The airport must remain open and it does remain open. We recognize that it’s voluntary.”

Gelbarb said he was only aware of a mandatory curfew at one airport: Naples Municipal Airport in Florida.

Mandatory or not?

The county once had a means to enforce the curfew. In 1981, the county Board of Legislators passed a law banning flights in or out of the airport between midnight and 7 a.m. as a noise control measure, penalizing violators to the tune of $100 or the potential for 30 days in jail.

A federal lawsuit by the National Business Aviation Association shot the mandatory curfew down, however, and in 1983 the legislators adopted the current voluntary restriction. Those airlines that do break the curfew are provided with a notice about their off-hours flight and a list of any noise complaints related to that flight.

County Board of Legislators Chairman Mike Kaplowitz, D-Somers, asked at a mid-March meeting with airport privatization consultants Frasca and Associations whether the existing voluntary curfew would have to be written into a lease with a private operator. Doreen Frasca, the firm's president, said an operator would likely proceed as if the voluntary curfew was mandatory.

This week, Gelfarb said area residents' concerns about late-night and early-morning flights will be an ongoing consideration as county legislators put together a potential management agreement.

“We respect their concerns and we're going to do everything we can to address it, up to and including not approving a deal," he said.

For Rosenberg, the privatization process and passenger limits are more pressing issues than curfew violators. He hopes to keep the airport a good neighbor for his community.

“No one wants to see the airport disappear," he said. "It’s pretty well established that the airport is part of the community, it serves a purpose and that’s an important purpose."

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