Helicoptering over the city (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin)
Thanks to an onslaught of out-of-town tourist helicopters and small planes flying over New York landmarks, a quiet weekend day in Central Park or Governors Island or the Brooklyn waterfront has become a thing of the past. Any revered site from the Noguchi Museum in Queens to Liberty Island south of the Battery is now subject to inundation by 85 to 95 flights starting at dawn on Saturdays and finishing at unpredictable hours, with some flying as late as midnight Sunday. And while helicopters in the old days tried to maintain heights of 1,900 feet to minimize noise, they now routinely hover at 1,000 feet, circling and swooping to maximize passenger views and photo opps.
But New York has an advocate on the horizon—Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who is now doing everything in her power to tackle this new set of low-flying, loud, polluting helicopters operating in unprecedented numbers. While first setting up a task force of elected officials from New York and New Jersey to examine the issues and propose solutions, her second step is to gather data—no minor feat given that the helicopter industry refuses to release flight data to the public, as does the federal monitoring agency, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which asserts dismissively, "Any helicopter may fly over Manhattan." Not in Brewer’s view: “No issue has produced the number of complaints through the years as helicopters.” Indeed, an analysis by The City showed a more than 130% increase in helicopter noise complaints, rising to 7,758 as of November 13 of this year versus 4,400 for all of 2019.
“The good news is that the industry has agreed to participate,” Brewer told me. “All stakeholders will be meeting, and we hope to make headway in stopping the tourism from above.” In a first for them, the FAA has even agreed to send expert observers to provide input and feedback, Brewer said.
Simply straightening out who’s flying above us is crucial because there have been many misunderstandings over the last few months. The NYPD, for example, is not a major culprit. Yes, the Aviation Unit has 8 helicopters, and some of them flew low and aggressively during the summer’s protests, but as FlightRadar24 shows, the NYPD seldom has more than one helicopter in the air at a time. To clarify this and other problems, Brewer has asked the NYPD to provide helicopter data that they don’t currently make public. She is also requesting a joint meeting with the television stations that use helicopters. In the past the media have used the protections of the First Amendment to fly with impunity, but those days may be numbered as New Yorkers discover via flight apps that it’s the media hovering above their neighborhoods for hours at a time sounding like giant dental drills in the sky.
Doors-Off Heli Hell from Across the Hudson
We live in odd times. We know that. The onslaught of doors-off tourist helicopter flights from New Jersey is a product, first, of the pandemic itself which shut competing New York heliports, and, second, the social media boom, especially Instagram, which encourages people to post current adventures, the more dramatic and outrageous the better. The heli blitz began in July, when New York was mostly locked down, but New Jersey somehow wasn’t. Still, many New Jerseyans had plenty of free time since far fewer people than usual were working or going to school. Some took to the skies—New York City skies.
They took helicopter rides over New York City as entertainment, especially easy to do from local heliports—Kearny, Linden, Newark, Teterboro and dozens more—and unusually cheap, because the heli companies have been offering bargain rates of $99 per ride and up. They also offer an array of 60%-off packages, encouraging tourists to take multiple flights and get their photos of New York City landmarks just right. Give the gift of flight, says FlyNYON:
“Holiday Deals Are Back at FlyNYON!
Get Ready to Fly Over New York City
Take the Perfect Shoe Selfie With a Doors-Off Flight Over Manhattan!”
NYC’s Own Heliports Are Not the Current Culprits
New York City-based tour flights can only originate at the Downtown Heliport. The other two city-owned heliports ban tours. That’s not to say their flights are not annoying, but their flights are not the relentless tours over landmarks. Over 96% of East 34th Street’s flights, for example, are categorized as air taxi.
Flights from the East 34th Street Heliport, directly across from both the Langone Medical Center and densely populated East Side residential blocks, were an early source of controversy so ferocious that Mayor Giuliani’s administration actually tried to appease neighbors by specifically imposing a mandatory 47% reduction in flights and banning heavy Sikorskys from sightseeing flights. But Giuliani was blocked by then-District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who in 1997 permanently enjoined the city from regulating routes or banning flights. A federal appellate court subsequently allowed the city to restrict operations somewhat, but the lesson was clear: A locality, even a city of New York’s wealth and size, is the lesser power than the federal government when it comes to control of air traffic—which is one reason the FAA’s participation in Borough President Brewer’s task force is imperative.
Still, the pandemic has forced a reduction in flights that activists, ironically, were never able to achieve. As New York City Economic Development Corporation data obtained by the Manhattan Borough President show, flights in 2020 have been greatly decreased from 2019. In August 2020, the last month for which data are available, only 224 flights left East 34th Street, as opposed to ten times as many, 2,472, in 2019.
The heliport is closed weekends, which means no commuter flights from the Hamptons.
The Hudson River Park West 30th Street Heliport wasn’t even supposed to be there. The 1998 act establishing the park barred all sightseeing flights from taking off or landing within its boundaries and prohibited any heliport from operating on park land. But a series of compromises between the city and the Trust effectively sited a heliport on park land. This matter could always be re-visited, though the creation of the huge Hudson Yards development to the immediate north produced a whole new set of potential helicopter-commuting customers, who especially like the huge Sikorskys that thunder across Queens and Manhattan at 1,000 feet, to and from the Hamptons, or up and down the Hudson River. Like 34th Street, West 30th flights have decreased by more than half—In October 2020 they had 403 flights versus 1,013 in October 2019.
Which brings us to the Downtown Heliport, the only one in New York City permitting tours. From a helicopter pilot’s point of view, downtown is a splendid location, with many of New York’s riches right at hand—the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn waterfront, Chelsea, downtown Manhattan including Ground Zero, and so much more. But from a residential point of view, the helicopters are abysmally located, leaving their engines running while on the ground and producing deafening noise when taking off and landing.
Still, like the other two city-owned heliports, Downtown’s traffic is down substantially, with 162 flights (88 tour, 74 non-tour) in September of this year, and 144 flights (77 tour and 67 non-tour) in August, versus 1,891 tour flights in September of last year and 2,470 in August.
For the most part, New York’s heliports adhere to a 2016 agreement, by which helicopter companies based at the Downtown Heliport agreed to (1) avoid flying over land, (2) not fly on Sunday, (3) ban flights over Governors Island, and (4) turn around before the George Washington Bridge when flying up the Hudson. Every single one of these principles is regularly ignored by the tourist flights from New Jersey and, increasingly, Westchester County and Poughkeepsie. They all fly over land, Sunday is their big day, and they hover over landmarks—all of which put the few flights from New York’s heliports at a competitive disadvantage.
One oddity in all of this: the out-of-town tourist helicopters are, astonishingly enough, promoted by New York’s taxpayer-supported NYC & Company, which apparently believes they are part of what it calls hyperlocal tourism. As part of the promotion, the Empire State Building offers its tourists FlyNYON discounts to see the ESB from a helicopter. The Wall Street Journal recently approvingly cited Wings Air Helicopters, which it called “a flight service that typically drew 60-65% of its business from international visitors, is catering to locals with 12-minute sightseeing rides out of Westchester Airport for $90 a person.” It’s hard to make the intellectual leap from out-of-town helicopter flights to benefits for New York’s tourism industry, yet NYC & Company lists dozens.
When Is a Commuter Flight not a Commuter Flight?
Because the FAA classifies commuter flights as essential, anti-helicopter activists in New York City have generally avoided taking on this category of flight. Yet not all flights self-categorized as commuter are truly commuter and those that are tend to fly the lowest and the noisiest—sounding like low-flying diesel trucks—over residential neighborhoods.
The flight apps show that a few rogue helicopter pilots who primarily fly commuter planes sometimes book tourist flights from both West Side and East Side heliports. So far the Economic Development Corporation, the heliport landlord, has not commented, but the matter of EDC oversight should be high on Borough President Brewer’s agenda: Who audits what helicopters are doing, where, and when? At the moment, the answer is no one.
Not only are there no audits telling New Yorkers who’s flying, we have no way of knowing why they’re flying—tourist joyride, essential commute, or, importantly, human organ transplant missions. A Bell helicopter, N39CL, emblazoned with the Blade logo, for example, recently flew from Teterboro across Manhattan at 800 feet, down the East River at 400 feet, over to Newark at 900 feet, and onto Linden where it landed—after what looked like a 30-minute jaunt around Manhattan. Will Heyburn, Blade’s Head of Corporate Development, said that far from being a jaunt, N39CL was delivering a human organ, a liver, picked up at Teterboro and delivered to NYU Langone on 34th Street. “This helicopter is used almost exclusively on organ transplant missions,” said Heyburn, “a very rapid service that was unavailable in New York before Blade. You have four hours max to deliver a heart, for example, and you really can’t do that on roads.”
Still, Blade’s logo does appear on tourist flights made by other companies, such as Zip. A private helicopter and seaplane service that prides itself on being a good corporate citizen, Blade responds when challenged that flights with its logo are not necessarily theirs, writing me: “Our largest concern in the industry are the FlyNYON doors-off flights above and around Manhattan buildings. None of the operator companies that we do business with conduct any over-Manhattan tours. Their operations are over water and around the island.” Yet heli companies like Zip take advantage of the loose oversight to fly questionable routes that are indeed over land, including Central Park.
This is good news and bad: good, because Blade and its very articulate CEO Rob Wiesenthal should be natural allies of Brewer’s task force, but bad, because this simply reinforces what we already know—anyone can fly above us at any time, unobstructed by regulatory agencies or even a corporation whose name is on their plane.
Embedded in all of this is another reason for policy-makers to pay attention to commuter flights: the growth of what Wiesenthal calls “synthetic suburbs,” in areas like the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley not normally accessible for daily trips to the city—but accessible via Wiesenthal’s helicopters.
Can Brewer Succeed?
Brewer has taken on a very tough assignment in which her legal authority is limited even as the grievances of her constituents become ever larger and more persistent. At the moment, hers is the only serious effort to address an increasingly contentious problem. And while a single company, FlyNYON, is responsible for most of the egregious flights, they have recently been joined by others: HelifFlight out of Linden, which offers Groupon discounts, and WingsAir from Westchester County Airport. Both book late-night tours.
The FAA itself warns that “even experienced pilots can miss something as big as a mountain at night,” especially when flying under Visual Flight Rules. Yet night flights have become a constant in New York’s pandemic age, as helicopter companies and pilots push the outer limits of good sense, circling famous skyscrapers at night recklessly.
Can they be stopped? All New Yorkers should be watching Brewer’s efforts carefully.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a long-time editor and writer on cities. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.
Note: this column has been updated with additional information and comment from Blade.