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New York Helicopter Operators Take the Lead on Controlling Noise

At airports, airplane operators work with the community to minimize the impact of aircraft noise, while ensuring fair and flexible access. In New York, however, helicopter operators face a threat to airspace access that stems from perceived noise issues not at an airport, but along a 100-mile flight route.

The route extends the length of Long Island, from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to East Hampton Airport (HTO). Until 2008, one major route overflew the Long Island Railroad tracks and communities up the center of the island. In 2007, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) worked with the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC) to develop a new voluntary route, along the island’s north shore, with which more than 90 percent of helicopter operators complied. Schumer also introduced legislation requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take action on the issue. In 2010, the FAA released a proposal making use of the voluntary North Shore Route mandatory.

That proposal was never finalized, because the FAA received more than 800 comments on the safety and operational problems presented by a mandatory VFR route. Last year, Schumer proposed an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill requiring the FAA to establish mandatory helicopter routes in Long Island, but due to opposition from the aviation community, the provision was not included in the final version of the bill.

“This amendment, if it’s offered again, would restrict routes and altitudes based on nothing except noise,” said Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International. “The FAA doesn’t have that charge for a reason: Airspace design should be based first and foremost on safety considerations. If this noise-only approach passes with helicopters, it will absolutely spread to fixed-wing GA operations.”

It could spread to other parts of the country, too. Last year, Rep. Howard Berman (D-28-CA) introduced a bill requiring the FAA to set mandatory helicopter routes and altitudes in Los Angeles. The House has not acted on the bill, but it could gain momentum if restrictions pass in New York.

Problems With Mandatory VFR Routes

The top concern helicopter operators have with making the North Shore Route mandatory is safety. To minimize noise, the route often is 1,000 feet offshore, with a recommended altitude of 2,500 feet, when conditions permit. “The large majority of operators fly twin-engine helicopters, and many are equipped with floats, but flying over water increases the level of risk for single-engine helicopters,” said Jeff Smith, EHRC chairman. “And route design should be based on risk mitigation.”

Another safety concern is the heavy air traffic over Long Island Sound. Charts depicting the North Shore Route include several warnings of congestion and wake turbulence from the “heavy concentration of IFR jet operations between 4,000 and 2,000 feet,” an area that overlaps the recommended helicopter altitude. Making the North Shore Route mandatory would force even more two-way helicopter traffic into that airspace.

What makes the mandatory route proposal a bad precedent, helicopter operators explain, is that it’s not based on science. “When noise guidelines are made for airports, they’re based on scientific noise studies,” said Zuccaro. “That hasn’t been done in this case.”

In fact, the ERHC is the only organization that’s actively studied the noise issue on Long Island. “In 2011, we received 4,364 noise complaints,” said ERCH special advisor Robert Grotell. “Our data show 10 households filed 53 percent of those complaints. One household alone filed 900 complaints.”

“The industry has always been committed to being a good neighbor,” said Lisa Piccione, NBAA senior vice president for government affairs. “At the same time, we also have a long-standing position that operators need fair and equal access to airports and airspace.”

ERHC’s Initiatives to Reduce Noise

Despite their objections to mandatory routes, local operators and the ERHC have taken a leadership role on noise issues in Long Island. “It’s very important to us to fly neighborly,” said Scott Ashton, president of Associated Aircraft Group, a New York-based helicopter operator. “Many of our customers live on Long Island. We want to be sensitive to their needs as passengers and as residents.”

Through a “Fly Neighborly” program, the ERHC encourages members to follow the voluntary route and the 2,500-feet altitude whenever safe. The group tracks compliance by radar.

“ERHC subscribes to PASSUR terminal radar data,” explained Grotell. “We monitor compliance during the three heaviest weekends of the year: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. We track helicopter type, altitude and flight path.” The ERHC’s most recent radar data, for Labor Day 2011, shows 95 percent of the operators flew the voluntary route. “For those few operators not complying, we’ll contact them, ask if they have safety or operational reasons [for not flying the route], and explain the impact on residents,” said Grotell.

In addition to working with its members, the ERHC constantly reaches out to the community. “We go to dozens of community meetings each year, testify at public hearings and meet with elected officials,” said Smith. “We’ve run a massive noise-complaint management system and data collection effort since 2007 that’s ongoing.”

That effort is based around www.flyneighborly.net, a web site that ERHC set up using technology developed by Grotell for Long Island residents to submit noise complaints. The complaint data is analyzed and regularly shared with ERHC’s members, local airport managers, the FAA and elected officials. ERHC plots the location of each noise complaint and overlays them on the North Shore route map, along with their data on helicopter compliance.

“The data clearly show this is not an island-wide problem,” said Grotell. “In fact, it’s localized in two places: the transition from LaGuardia to the North Shore Route over Manhasset Bay, and the transition from the route to East Hampton Airport over the North Fork of Long Island. A full 59 percent of noise complaints originate from two towns on the North Fork: Mattituck and Cutchogue.”

A Better Solution

The ERHC’s data also suggest a single mandatory route would not solve noise problems – in fact, it could make them worse. “The high level of traffic concentrated along the North Shore creates heavy noise for those neighbors,” said Ashton. “So we vary our flight paths, from the North Shore Route to the South Shore Route, as appropriate.”

As part of its “Fly Neighborly” program, the ERHC now encourages members to vary their routes to reduce the impact on heavy traffic areas. Its next step is to examine land-use maps and develop transitions for the North Shore and South Shore Routes that overfly the fewest households and align with airport noise abatement policies.

Improvements at East Hampton Airport should further reduce the noise created during approaches, including a seasonal control tower that could limit low-flying approaches, and a tracking system to monitor compliance with the airport’s voluntary noise-abatement program.

ERHC’s efforts demonstrate how voluntary routes are better at mitigating noise than mandatory airspace restrictions – without affecting safety or operational readiness.

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