Complaints about New York City helicopter noise have tripled in the past year
Five years ago, New York City banned tourist helicopters from using its landing pads on Sundays, ostensibly giving residents a day of respite from the flypast that sparked thousands of complaints.
But the ban did not make Sunday a day of peace. Far from there. The city is still buzzed by helicopters over 150 times on some Sundays – and hundreds of times on weekdays.
All this noise leads many New Yorkers, who were stranded in their apartments during the pandemic, to an almost constant distraction.
Stacey Shub, who lives near the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, feels like she’s under siege.
As the helicopters come closer and their unmistakable thwup-thwup-thwup turns into a roar that fills her apartment, her heart speeds up and Ms. Shub loses her focus.
On a recent sunny Sunday, she counted six helicopters flying over before 1 p.m. “I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” she said.
New Yorkers have always had a strained relationship with noise. While the urban cacophony can be upsetting, it is also intrinsic to the frenetic character that draws many people to the city. A certain level of noise has always been considered an acceptable price to pay for living in New York City.
But the coronavirus pandemic has upset the daily rhythms of the city. For months last year, the bustling metropolis fell silent, an abrupt change that has led New Yorkers to rethink their relationship to noise.
Noise calls to the city’s 311 hotline surged in 2020 and are set to continue to do so this year. And calls about helicopter noise have increased dramatically.
At the end of September, the city received 17,733 helicopter noise calls, more than triple the number during the same period last year. These calls are already eclipsing helicopter noise complaints to 311 over the past year and into 2019.
The overwhelming majority came from Manhattan, with just under 3,200 from the other four boroughs.
Elected officials have reported a similar boom in calls as New Yorkers shifted to working from home, away from office buildings that are better built to filter out the city’s din.
“That’s a lot of people whose apartments are in the flight path and people who are now working from home,” said Mark Levine, a city councilor who represents parts of upper Manhattan.
Helicopters fly over the city skies for many purposes, including law enforcement and medical transport, but much of the anger has been centered on commercial and tourist flights.
The spike in complaints comes as legislative efforts at the federal and state levels to curb such thefts have failed to gain traction. It also coincided with a resurgence in tourist flights.
Flights from Manhattan’s two city-owned helipads fell last year, but have started to rebound this year. Helicopter traffic from New Jersey is more difficult to quantify, but also appears to have picked up.
The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the two helipads, one near Wall Street and the other along the East River, says the pandemic has slashed the sites’ revenues by more than 80%.
While most companies offering air tours of the city have suffered financially, there is one exception – NYONAir.
The company, which also operates as FlyNYON, is known for two things: doorless tours that allow customers to swing their feet out of open helicopters to take ‘shoe selfies’ and a crash in 2018 during of which five passengers drowned in the East River.
After the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration banned the type of harness that NYON was using at the time. But they allowed the guided tours to continue.
Since then, they have become more and more popular. On a Sunday in late July, more than a third of the 157 flights over a large part of the city were operated by NYON from its base in Kearny, New Jersey, according to an analysis of data from Flightradar24.
A typical flight travels up the Hudson River, crosses the Upper West Side, lingers over Central Park, then descends the East River to the tip of Lower Manhattan. After a slow ride over the Brooklyn Bridge and a long loop around Liberty Island, passengers are usually back in Kearny in just over 15 minutes.
Several years ago, tourist flights like these generated so many complaints that the city struck a deal with tour operators to limit their frequency, reduce their routes and ban them from flying on Sundays.
But NYON and other operators based out of the city have not been affected: they are free to fly low over the city with almost no restrictions. Another operator, Helicopter Flight Services, offers flights over Central Park from Linden, NJ
NYON and Helicopter Flight Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
NYON bowed to some pressure this spring, said Jeffery Smith, an executive with the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which represents the helicopter companies.
Following complaints from New York City officials, Smith said council persuaded NYON to stop “hanging out” on Central Park and other parts of the city.
“They made a change,” Mr. Smith said. “And we are always ready for more change.”
But Ms Shub and others claim the flights that slowly turn near city landmarks haven’t stopped, pointing to data from the Flightradar24 app to prove that New Jersey-based companies are still disrupting the skies. .
Ajit Thomas, who lives on the Upper West Side, said over the past year he has seen more helicopters fly over Central Park, making noise in one of Manhattan’s quieter oases.
“Considering how often and how fast they fly, it’s really miserable,” he said.
Some New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a law ban tourist helicopter operations in the state; and reduce flights statewide.
The fate of the bill is unclear, but a spokesperson for the state’s Transportation Department said the agency believed such legislation would be pre-empted by federal law.
Still, a spokesman for Gov. Philip D. Murphy said residents “shouldn’t have to deal with the constant traffic of tourist helicopters in New York City,” and Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, argued. efforts to regulate helicopter noise “at the federal level”. “
Mr. Levine and other New York City officials also said their ability to deal with complaints remains limited given that the FAA is responsible for regulating the safety of U.S. airspace and has shown little to interest in adopting stricter rules.
Citing the FAA’s inaction, several New York House Democrats reintroduced a 2019 bill that would prevent non-essential helicopters from flying over the city.
An FAA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on the pending legislation. But the agency does not generally limit when, where or how often helicopters can fly.
Melissa Elstein, the secretary of Stop the Chop, an organization seeking to limit helicopter flights, said she initially assumed the helicopters passing over Central Park and the Hudson and East rivers were police planes or military. She was outraged to learn that most of them carry tourists.
“It’s crazy that this is happening over New York,” she said.
Ms Elstein said the sound also evokes traumatic memories for New Yorkers who remember the days after the 9/11 attacks. “It puts us on high alert,” she said.
Studies have also shown that helicopter noise can be particularly irritating to the general public, and in a survey this year, the FAA cited research showing that aircraft noise caused “higher annoyance levels” than the same sound levels from ground sources.
Such noise is at the heart of disputes across the country over helicopter traffic, including the protracted struggle to shut down East Hampton Airport on Long Island, which also operates private jets. The neighbors say the problem got worse in recent years, after an increase in Uber-type services like Blade, which offers direct helicopter travel from Manhattan to East Hampton for around $ 800 per seat.
Residents of the city who live near Manhattan helipads have also complained about the noise of Blade flights. Company chief executive Rob Wiesenthal said the company plans to switch to quieter electric planes, but opposes the closure of East Hampton Airport.
In Manhattan, Ms Shub said she no longer bothered to call 311 because the complaints had been unsuccessful.
And Mr. Thomas has become so sensitive to the sound of a passing helicopter that he cannot sleep through it.
“I am more aware of the injustice,” he said. “And that wakes you up a little more than a passing ambulance.”