Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tired of the noise, East Hampton Town considers closing airport

“It is one of the main sources of bringing people into the area because anybody who's been out here knows how much traffic is on [Route] 27.”
- Kathryn Slye Allen, recreational pilot and vice president of the pilot group East Hampton Aviation Association.

East Hampton Town officials are considering closing the town-owned East Hampton Airport — which services ride-share helicopter passengers, CEOs and their private jets and recreational pilots — if the town cannot achieve meaningful reductions in aircraft noise and traffic volume.

The thumping of helicopter blades and roar of seaplane and jet engines, most frequent during the summer, has been a hot-button issue for years at the airport in Wainscott. Critics contend that the airport, which is a 35-minute flight from the East End to Manhattan, brings big-city noise, but supporters said the town could lose jobs, hurt its economy and alienate some of its most influential and affluent residents.

East Hampton has exhausted the judicial, legislative and administrative means of addressing the noise issue, Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said in an interview. After mandates tied to federal grants expire on Sept. 29, 2021, the town could solve the problem by closing the facility. No town board members have publicly said they support closing the airport, but the possibility has been mentioned several times over the years.

"I’m not sure given the constraints that we have … that the town board is in a position to allow things to continue at status quo," Van Scoyoc said.

The town tried to regulate noise with curfews and other restrictions in 2015, but those rules were struck down in court because they did not comply with federal law. The town also considered undertaking a Part 161 study, a multimillion-dollar federal process working with the Federal Aviation Administration to enact local restrictions, but abandoned the process on the advice of its counsel. Town officials noted that other municipalities have spent millions of dollars and up to a decade of work on such proceedings without success.

East Hampton Town Councilman Jeff Bragman, the town board airport liaison, said the town is working on a public process to allow input from both sides on the issue. Part of the discussion will be examining economic and environmental impacts and envisioning other possible uses for the property, Van Scoyoc said. Those could include commercial retail space, housing, recreational space or a solar farm, he said. No formal requests for proposals have been issued for any studies.

Airport does not serve major airlines

The general aviation airport is unlike the Islip Town-owned Long Island MacArthur Airport in that it does not serve any major airlines. Instead, advertisements for Chanel and Patek Phillipe watches compete for attention from the airport’s private air travelers.

The airport’s 600 acres are owned by the town, but its more than $6 million annual budget is raised mostly through leases, landing fees and the sale of aviation fuel. The airport is home to private hangars leased by recreational pilots and transient flyers, and also services private charter and medevac flights.

The town last accepted grant money from the FAA in 2001, and with that came several requirements, including keeping the airport operational for public use. That agreement expires next September.

If the airport remains public — and if it is operated by the town, it must stay public regardless of the grant assurances — it still must comply with the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, which hamstrings East Hampton’s ability to control operations. The FAA said the law is not clear as to what, if any, access restrictions an airport owner can impose on an airport that is not for public use.

"The FAA realizes that the Town of East Hampton’s decision is not simple, and while the FAA encourages the preservation of airports, we recognize this is a local decision," an FAA spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Resident: 'Our quality of life is gone'

The noise issue has drawn the attention of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Long Island’s congressional delegation, who most recently pushed the FAA to extend the North Shore Helicopter Route, a rule requiring the aircrafts to fly a mile offshore when traveling along the Island’s North Shore, until 2022.

The complaints have grown in the past few years with the proliferation of a sharing economy. Operations such as Columbus, Ohio-based NetJets, which allows users to share in leasing or owning a private jet and is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and New York City-based Blade, which advertises a 10-pack of flights between Manhattan and the Hamptons for $7,500, have made private flights accessible to more people.

Patricia Currie, one of the founders of the anti-airport group Say No to KHTO, said noise is particularly troublesome in Noyac where she lives, which is north of the highway in Southampton Town, and for North Fork residents.

"Private aviation in a rural area like this, I mean the airport was not built for that," said Currie, who advocates for closing the airport. "It’s become a major jet port. So as far as I’m concerned, our quality of life is gone."

Kathy Cunningham, an East Hampton resident who lives near the airport and who has studied the issue for decades, said she did not previously favor closing it. However, she now thinks it may be impossible for the town to gain control of the airport.

"I think the town has been forced into an all-or-nothing approach," Cunningham said.

Some say airport an economic engine

Proponents said the airport is an important economic engine, most recently allowing people to easily commute from Manhattan to the East End during the coronavirus pandemic. They also said it offers recreational and educational opportunities for aircraft enthusiasts, charity flights for those in need of medical treatment and allows a safe place for a medevac helicopter to land.

Members of the East Hampton Aviation Association, a pilot group, have noted that the demand for air travel out east would not suddenly evaporate with the airport’s closure. Those aircraft would still make use of existing helipads in Montauk and Southampton, they said.

Closing the facility, supporters said, would be an extreme option when perhaps other compromises could be reached.

"It is one of the main sources of bringing people into the area because anybody who’s been out here knows how much traffic is on [Route] 27," Kathryn Slye Allen, the aviation association’s vice president and a recreational pilot, said during an interview at the airport. "We have a two-lane road that comes in and out. This does have a significant impact when people choose where they want to go and do their summer vacation."

One avenue could be working directly with organizations such as the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, an industry group that wields considerable influence over its pilots. Bragman noted during a public forum in February hosted by the Express News Group, a local newspaper company, that during summer 2019 helicopter traffic suddenly increased over Northwest Harbor, a hamlet north of the airport. He then learned the helicopter council had put out a directive to its pilots telling them to abandon the southern route following questions about that route’s safety.

"My realization was the Eastern Region Helicopter Council had more control over routing in the sky than your elected officials in the Town of East Hampton," Bragman said during the forum.

The newly formed East Hampton Community Alliance — founded by Gianpaolo de Felice, a local restaurateur, and Michael Norbeck, who owns a Hertz rental car franchise based at the airport — is among those stressing the airport’s importance on the South Fork. The group, which has hired a Manhattan public relations firm to help its cause and is soliciting donations for an awareness and advertising campaign on its website, is commissioning its own study examining the airport’s impact on the local economy.

"I think business is going to be affected," said de Felice, a former Alitalia pilot who keeps a small plane at the airport. "A lot of people that benefit from working here in the Hamptons, they will have to migrate elsewhere."

Van Scoyoc said he doubts an independent review would show the town’s economy would crash without the airport.

"Further study to understand exactly what the economic impacts are, both benefits and detriments, is really important," he said. "That’ll be a crucial part of making a sound decision."

Rising traffic and noise complaints

Total flights in and out of the airport

Summer 2019: 19,200

Summer 2018: 17,700

Summer 2015: 15,600

Resident complaints

2019: 47,500

2015: 19,100

Helicopters are about one-third of operations, but make up more than half of complaints.

Complaints are funneled to the town board through two systems, PlaneNoise and Air Noise Report. In 2019, complaints were recorded from 553 locations. However, 44% of those complaints came from just 10 households, with the highest making 1,811 complaints that year.

Source: Review of Operation and Complaints prepared by Burlington, Massachusetts-based HMMH, July 2020


  1. East Hampton airport (KHTO) has been in operation since 1940. How many complaints came from people who have lived there before 1940? Those who moved into the area after 1940 knew the existence of this airport. They chose to live there, didn't they? If you chose to build a house next to a busy highway, do you have the right to request highway closure because you don't like the noise & pollution from the vehicles?

    1. I want to know what I can do for you guys not to close down the airport? I am from California and would like to see if there is a petition I can sign for you guys not to close down the airport?
      Edwin Renteria

  2. Federal rules should mandate an exclusive 2 miles zone around any airport. I could call it an "anti creeping" rule. No exceptions. Massive fines and eminent domain if this rule is broken. This will prevent NYMBers from slowly surrounding airports and moving in.
    COVID has now made working from home the norm and plenty of equity locusts will invade small towns and their small airports might be surrounded by mansions with wealthy software developers or investors with plenty of activism in the wrong way. Let's be proactive in addressing this ASAP and saving GA dedicated airports which might be decimated by the thousands.
    On another note this is yet another reason to push for electric aviation as it cuts off any arguments... be it "Pollution from leaded gas" to "noise".

    1. The problem is electric aircraft (what do we call them, EAs??) are not cross country aircraft nor will they be in the foreseeable future. They will be regional/local only fliers like a recreational aircraft is. It is not feasible to fly an EA for a couple hundred miles on a XC trip then spend more time charging it than the actual flight time. This is also why EVs make for terrible 500+ mile road trips (and that's assuming you have charging stations along your route).

    2. "Federal rules should mandate an exclusive 2 miles zone around any airport. I could call it an "anti creeping" rule. No exceptions."

      Absurd. An airport with a single 5000 foot runway would end up being 4 miles wide by 5 miles long. 20 square miles x 640 acres/square mile = 12,800 acres. What airport could afford to acquire that amount of land. Next time, please think.

      "On another note this is yet another reason to push for electric aviation as it cuts off any arguments... be it "Pollution from leaded gas" to "noise"."

      If you were a pilot you would know that the majority of noise generated by propeller driven aircraft comes from the propeller and the airframe. Neither of which are eliminated in an electric aircraft.

      "Let's be proactive in addressing this ASAP and saving GA dedicated airports which might be decimated by the thousands."

      Absurdity and drama-queening aren't going to help. Try again.

  3. Get used to it. If things keep going the way they're trending, GA will soon be finished. Know who and what your vote is supporting.

    1. Yep. And make no mistake the Green Raw Deal will kill it off if the blue party takes the US Senate in Georgia. But the bigger issue is that you have voters who think that private aircraft are only 1% rich people's toys and that many private aircraft are fractional owned - where a buy in cost can be less than their precious $50K+ SUVs and BMWs.

  4. We all pay "convenience fees" now on lots of municipality interactions. Should be simple enough for the town to impose a convenience fee for each passenger arrival and departure through KHTO, putting the money in a fund for homeowner soundproofing and appease the most strident complainers with a "solution".

    Attempting to soundproof existing homes for helicopter blade impulse noise is a fools errand of course, but "we offered impacted homeowners a no-cost mitigation" is the easy way out instead of having the Thurston & Lovey Howell's of the affluent set fighting about the airport. Nobody really believes KHTO can be closed when heavy hitters are using it.

    1. "convenience fees" Should be paid by homeowners who moved into the area after
      airport. They knew it was noisy then
      They moved TO the airport. Now MOVE AWAY!!

    2. It can be a token amount and you would be exempt from paying when you fly in/out if you own a home nearby. Designed to show that the whining was addressed. Complainers enter in a drawing, one house gets a few soundproofing bucks each year and no more controversy.

  5. What a negative attitude just close it because people complain ? it always amazes me why people who do not like chickens and roosters making noises next to their country residence let alone moving to near an airport ? these same people fly on their holidays in noisy jets,pathetic whingers.

  6. People move close to an airport and then complain about the noise, and then they demand the airport be closed down permanently? How about, don't buy a house near an airport, or a firehouse, or a highway, or a sriracha factory?