Have You Heard That Buzzing?

Helicopter flights over New York City cause uproar amid COVID-19

| 12 Mar 2021 | 04:14

Maybe you’ve heard them hover overhead as you jog through Central Park, relishing in a much-needed dose of fresh air. Maybe their buzzing drives you toward the brink of insanity while you attempt to work from home, stuck in the same apartment where you peruse Netflix each night before falling asleep.

Or maybe, like New Yorker Melissa Elstein, you find the helicopters bothersome enough that you’ve considered leaving the city for good.

“It’s detracted so much,” she explained of her and her husband’s outlook, “that, you know, at times we have contemplated moving.”

Elstein is an organizer and secretary for Stop the Chop NYNJ, a local group committed to ending non-essential helicopter excursions over New York City.

Despite a brief hiatus in tourist flights during the COVID-19 shutdown last spring, 311 complaints citing helicopter noise as a cause of disturbance skyrocketed in 2020 and into the new year. Activists against the noise claim that it’s a problem which predates the pandemic. But working from home and spending more time outside in city parks might be making noise pollution emanating from the sky harder to bear, suggests Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who’s long pushed for change.

“Wild, Wild West”

“We need transparency, we need safety, we need an end to helicopter rides being some kind of ‘wild, wild West’ only benefiting tourists and the wealthy,” Brewer said at an event this month announcing the reintroduction of the Improving Helicopter Safety Act, which was originally proposed in 2019 but died at the start of this year with the conclusion of the 116th Congress.

Brewer was joined by Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez. They huddled together on the East River Greenway in front of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, the only to host tourist flights originating from Manhattan. Community members and press asked about the possibility of brain damage from ongoing helicopter noise and about the impact of police choppers over the summer, when Black Lives Matter marches overtook the city.

Now once again on the table, the act would ban non-essential flights over New York City. “Nowhere else in the country is the noise pollution from helicopters so bad,” Maloney said, “or the safety risk to bystanders so high.”

In 2019, Helicopter Association International (HAI) voiced opposition to the act; a press release from the group posited street traffic as a greater danger to locals and argued against claims that New York City lacks sufficient oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“Under the Proposal, these flights would cease to exist,” the statement reads, “and our members would lose their livelihoods.”

The Statistics

Helicopter noise complaints rose drastically last year, from around 3,300 total in 2019 to more than 10,300 in 2020, according to 311 statistics made publicly accessible by NYC Open Data. Even 2019 broke records; only roughly 1,000 complaints were recorded in each recent year prior.

“Citizens in New York have been battling helicopters for decades,” said Andrew Rosenthal, president of Stop the Chop NYNJ. “I mean, this is over a 20-year battle with many successes, but not enough.”

The bulk of 2020’s complaints occurred in the fall and winter — soon after commercial flights, according to Elstein, started up again over the summer. In September, 1,065 complaints were filed in New York City, followed by 1,443 in October, 1,541 in November and 1,739 in December. At the start of 2021, complaints rose even higher to top 2,600 in the month of January alone, though they’ve dropped off since.

Helicopter flights fall under FAA jurisdiction. And yet, “much of the airspace over New York City is uncontrolled,” according to guidance published on NYC.gov. “This means that helicopters operate under visual flight rules and are not under the direct control of air traffic.”

Rosenthal, for one, has taken to tracking helicopters on Flightradar24, a website that boasts information like flight numbers, takeoff and landing points and altitudes.

“They Put It On Instagram”

Despite all of the fuss in the city, Manhattan — which appears to be the main sight-seeing attraction for multiple tourist helicopter companies — is only home to three heliports. Two locations, one at East 34th Street and the other at West 30th Street, don’t host tourist flights; the Downtown Manhattan Heliport does.

The 2016 NYC Helicopter Sightseeing Plan restricts tourist flights from the Downtown pad to Monday through Saturday hours and over-water flights paths. It also caps the annual number of flights at roughly 30,000, according to a press release from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which oversees the Downtown Manhattan and East 34th Street heliports.

NYCEDC officials explained that COVID-19 has kept locals cooped up inside their homes, which might heighten sensitivity to noise. They also claimed that many complaints are called in by a small number of residents, and that the number of complaints filed by unique callers has remained more or less steady in recent years.

Meanwhile, NYCEDC officials say that the volume of flights from the Downtown pad has dropped roughly 90 percent since the start of the pandemic.

Elstein and others explained that many tourist flights originate from New Jersey — where they can’t be regulated by the city. “People are very frustrated,” she said. “People feel like they don’t have any power over this situation, which is — which is true, because the helicopters are flying amuck over our skies.”

“They fly over Manhattan, which we don’t like at all,” Brewer explained of tourists sightseeing via helicopter, “and they take pictures. And then they go back to New Jersey, and they put it on Instagram.”

The Improving Helicopter Safety Act targets commercial flights rather than those necessitated by police surveillance, news-gathering or medical transportation. Stop the Chop NYNJ also keeps tabs on accidents in the city; in 2019, one pilot died after crashing into a Midtown building while another survived a Hudson River crash.

FlyNYON, HeliNY and Blade — three helicopter companies that offer tourist or commuter flights over the city — did not respond to interview requests.

In December, Brewer re-established a task force to address helicopter noise in the city. She was joined by local elected officials (including some from New Jersey), the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, the NYPD, representatives from companies like Blade and more.

What exactly could New Yorkers expect, on a daily basis, without all of the extra buzzing?

“A lot of happy people,” Elstein said with a laugh.

“Nowhere else in the country is the noise pollution from helicopters so bad, or the safety risk to bystanders so high.” Rep. Carolyn Maloney