Council Bill would ground choppers Tours

| 14 Jul 2015 | 12:05

As a proposed ban on horse carriages appears to have stalled in the city council, another effort targeting a different sector of the tourism industry is working up a head of steam. A forthcoming bill from Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents the Sunset Park and Red Hook neighborhoods of Brooklyn, would permanently ban helicopter tours around New York City.

“The negative contribution of tourist helicopters to air quality and noise is well documented, and has — for many years — been a real problem for New Yorkers,” Menchaca said in an announcement. “On the ground, we are hearing from residents about the real need for allies in government — in the City Council, we are ready to be that ally.”

While the legislation is still being drafted and has yet to be introduced, advocates on both sides of the issue are marshaling resources for the fight ahead. Helicopter Matters, a pro-helicopter industry group, told this newspaper they’re gearing up for a fight and will seek to protect the 200 jobs that are at stake.

“The coalition has engaged with City Hall in good faith, and we’ve engaged a lobbyist,” a company spokesperson said. “We’re having meetings and we’re working on a compromise.”

On the other side, the forthcoming bill already has a certain amount of support in the city council. Council members Mark Levine, Helen Rosenthal and Margaret Chin have all voiced support for a bill banning helicopter tours, citing a sustained stream of complaints from constituents.

“One of the main routes for tourist helicopters is up and down the Hudson River. People want to see the George Washington Bridge and the Empire State Building from the air,” said Levine. “Anyone who lives within a few blocks of the river knows exactly what I’m talking about ... seven days a week, 365 days a year. On days when it’s clear there can be a helicopter every few minutes.”

Levine said since taking office last January, noise complaints from constituents regarding helicopters have been one of the most consistent and frequent complaints. The industry estimates that it conducts over 40,000 tourism flights a year.

“It really is a constant disruption to people’s lives,” said Levine. “I know a couple places where people have left their apartments due to helicopters, they couldn’t take the noise. It’s seriously diminished quality of life here.”

But the Helicopter Matters spokesperson said the industry has been very good corporate citizens, and has agreed to concessions in the past like eliminating flights over land and flying above 1,500 feet.

“The industry understands that a compromise must be reached and we’re willing to work towards that compromise,” said the spokesperson.

According to Helicopter Matters, a 2010 study found that the helicopter tourism industry contributes $33 million in economic output to the city. The company also cite statistics that show in 2014 the city’s 311 system registered just 1,290 complaints regarding helicopter noise, far below other noise polluters like loud parties, emergency vehicles and traffic.

The spokesperson also said that the Federal Aviation Administration has sole regulatory power over airspace, so the bill wouldn’t prevent helicopter tours from flying their usual route around Manhattan if they took off from somewhere else, such as New Jersey.

“They’re still going to go up and down the Hudson River and the Brooklyn waterfront,” said the spokesperson.

An FAA representative said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

Delia von Neuschatz, founder of the anti-helicopter tourism group Stop the Chop, said it was “total and complete nonsense” that if banned in New York, the helicopter tourism industry would simple relocate across the Hudson and maintain their routes.

Even if helicopter tour operators took off from New Jersey, von Neuschatz said, tourists aren’t going to commute to the state for a 10-minute joy ride then come back into the city. What’s more, she said, is that helicopter tours have already been banned from taking off from the heliport in Jersey City, and have previously been “kicked out” of two other heliports in Manhattan and banned from flying over the East River.

“Their last refuge is the city-owned, taxpayer-funded Downtown Manhattan Heliport, and the Hudson River,” she said.

Stop the Chop currently has around 2,000 members, according to Von Neuschatz, and was formed two years ago.

“A huge swath of Manhattan is affected by this. Our members come from everywhere; Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island,” said Von Neuschatz, who said Stop the Chop gets complaints as far north as Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters. “It’s probably borne out of the thousands of complaints that have gone out from our site about the sightseeing tours. We started doing that because calling 311 is just an exercise in futility.”

While Stop the Chop wasn’t consulted on Menchaca’s forthcoming legislation, von Neuschatz said her group’s practice of aggregating and forwarding complaints about helicopter noise to elected officials “probably had something to do with it.“

Menchaca’s office declined to comment further on the legislation itself, including on when it might be introduced, but said next steps include holding public hearings and engaging with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, community stakeholders and industry representatives.

Brian Tolbert, who manages the Downtown Manhattan Heliport and is the public face of Helicopter Matters, said the industry is prepared to fight for its survival.

“If this outrageous bill passes, I’ll be out of a job, along with hundreds of other working-class New Yorkers,” Tolbert said. “Our business is a vital component of New York City’s tourism industry, putting millions of dollars into the local economy each and every year — critical dollars that fund schools, hospitals, and other essential services. People’s livelihoods are on the line and we will fight to protect our jobs.”

Both Levine and von Neuschatz cast doubt on the economic impact of the industry on New York, and the notion that the forthcoming legislation is the latest salvo in a war on tourism.

“The tourists who come here are still going to come to New York with or without the ability to take a helicopter ride. The money is still going to be circulated locally,” he said. “I feel pretty confident that this won’t be a net loss for the economy and I don’t think it’s reasonable to say people won’t come to New York City if they can’t take these rides.”

But Von Neuschatz said tourism in New York will be “alive and well, with or without these tours,” and said these tours don’t exist in any other major city like Washington, D.C., Boston, London, Paris or Hong Kong. Citing 311 statistics, she also said, was pointless because anyone that complains to the service about helicopter noise are automatically told the tourist flights are operating within legal parameters, so people have stopped registering their complaints with the hotline.

Upper West Sider Thomas Lewis said he enthusiastically supports the ban legislation, and that the industry’s touting of low 311 statistics is absurd, and that if he reported every noisy flight he’d be on the phone for 12 hours a day.

“We hear the tourist flights twice as they come north and loop around in the area of the West 70s and 80s to return south,” said Lewis. “The noise increases as the helicopters turn because, as the helicopters tilt in order to turn, the blades wash the noise down toward the park and the streets. The noise echoes off the buildings.”

Lewis said he spent 10 years in the Army and worked as a civilian for the Army in the Pentagon, and is familiar with the noise generated by helicopters.

“I’m used to helicopters,” said Lewis. “But I feel like I’m now living on a military base at 86th Street and Riverside and it’s not what my wife and I, and our thousands of neighbors, signed up for.”