July 17, 2013

About Those Helicopters

We have attempted to wade into the muddied waters of the East Hampton Airport issue many times. Invariably, we realize reaching any kind of compromise is unlikely – the pro and anti-airport factions are dug in so deeply that we fear sometimes neither side can see over the trenches.

Yet it is critical that some kind of consensus be reached. The economy of the East End is fueled by, for better or for worse, the wealthy second homeowners who feed the luxury real estate market. A fair amount, if not more, of the airport users – specifically those on the noisy helicopters – fall into this segment. Having a functioning airport is a critical choice when choosing a second home for many of them. We cannot afford to make them look elsewhere.

But oh, that noise! Folks in Bridgehampton, Noyac, Sag Harbor and Southampton are all forced to endure it during the summer season. That is the critical issue, and addressing the noise should go a long way in alleviating the opposition to the airport in general – unless some of the opponents have another agenda altogether.

Nineteen local elected officials have petitioned the government to approve an airport route that would allow the helicopters to fly over the ocean on routes from New York City. We call on Congressman Tim Bishop and our U.S. Senators to keep the request on the desks of powers-that-be in Washington DC.

It wasn't too long ago that people complained about the noise generated by jet aircraft. But newer planes are significantly quieter. It is safe to assume as new technology emerges helicopters will also become less noisy.

Opponents of the airport have long lobbied the town to stop taking FAA funding. The argument that the town can control its own destiny without federal funds is simply not accurate – the airport will still be a part of the federal transportation system. What it does mean is taxpayers will be on the line for the millions of dollars needed to keep the facility functioning, and that is a no-win situation.

However, once folks start feeling the bite of increased taxes, the sentiment to close the airport altogether will become more palpable. Perhaps that is the ultimate goal in some quarters.

The East Hampton Aviation Association is not the bad guy here. It is a group of local flying enthusiasts – not helicopter operators. But to say they alone should bear the financial burden of the airport is myopic – it would be akin to suggesting train riders fund the railroad. The airport generates significant income and more valuable intangible benefits. Like it or not, we all benefit from the airport in subtle ways that can't be measured. Once gone, however, they would be sorely missed.

A new EHAA proposal provides lots of common ground. Reduce noise, ban expansion, and fund over $7 million in needed repairs through the FAA. It would seem prudent to let the feds pay, but then again, if the pounding sound of a fleet of helicopters is what you hear when you are on the backyard hammock we can understand your concerns.

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