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Helicopters must follow new noise rules over Long Island

Residents and officials pressed the FAA after legislation stalled. Could L.A. learn something?

August 23, 2012|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

One homeowner complained that helicopters flew so low and so loudly over her neighborhood that she couldn't hear conversations and the vibrations rattled dishes in her china cabinet.

Another likened the deafening chopper sounds to a "war zone."

More grumbling from Los Angeles homeowners? Nope. Long Island.

Years of complaints about noise from helicopters shuttling well-to-do New Yorkers between the city and the Hamptons have led to new restrictions this month on helicopter traffic over Long Island — possibly offering a political lesson to Los Angeles residents seeking similar relief.

"Long Island will not continue to be the Wild West for low-flying, disruptive and noisy helicopters," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared this year.

Helicopter industry officials are warning that the Long Island rules requiring multi-engine helicopters to fly off the island's north shore at an altitude of at least 2,500 feet could lead to similar restrictions in other regions. The rules took effect Aug. 6.

Hundreds of L.A. residents recently turned out for a meeting to complain about their own helicopter noise turmoil.

California lawmakers have been watching the controversy unfold on Long Island because their attempts to pass congressional legislation to regulate helicopters in Los Angeles have stalled in the face of industry opposition. The Federal Aviation Administration controls air space rules.

The Long Island restrictions were mandated by the FAA, not a new federal law.

The FAA hopes to come up with recommendations to deal with L.A.'s noise complaints by next summer.

Long Islanders have long complained about the noise, especially from what one annoyed resident called "flying limousines." Such helicopters can cost $3,000 and more to charter for a 45-minute flight between Manhattan and the spiffy getaways on the eastern end of the island. And the air ferries can make as many as 500 trips on one weekend.

"It's not like a few helicopters fly low over your home and your yard, scaring children and pets, shaking cupboards, interrupting conversations and TV," one resident wrote the FAA. "It is many, many, often one right after the other on Friday nights, Saturday morning, Sunday evenings and Monday mornings."

Under the new rule, multi-engine helicopters, excluding fire, police and medevac aircraft, must fly over Long Island Sound — avoiding most residential areas. Deviations can be made "when necessary for safety, weather, or when transitioning to or from a point of landing."

The FAA does not otherwise set minimum altitudes for helicopters, as long as they operate "without hazard to persons or property."

Helicopter operators say the restrictions could create new risks in the skies and increase flight times and fuel costs. Although the prescribed routes decrease noise over some communities, the rules have the "perverse effect of concentrating helicopter traffic near other communities along the route," an industry group said.

"Any time you're concentrating aircraft on a single route … it degrades safety," pilot Thomas Moon said.

New York lawmakers, like their California counterparts, sought to restrict helicopter flights through legislation only to be stymied by the industry's allies on Capitol Hill.

Long Islanders then pressed the FAA, including the hard-driving Schumer, who took the issue directly to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The anti-noise rule could still run into trouble from regulatory-wary Republicans on Capitol Hill and possibly an industry court challenge.

"This entire initiative is a result of nothing more than political pressure on an agency," said Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Assn. International, a Virginia-based trade group.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) has urged the FAA to reconsider the rule and "the precedent it sets."

An FAA spokesman responded that the agency was "committed to mitigating noise impacts from aircraft operations in the safest and most efficient way possible."

North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said he believed that the noise already had been reduced. What's more, he said of the industry, "There is a sense that if they don't work with us now, we might be able to get more regulation."

Whether Long Island's anti-noise rule could open the door to similar flight restrictions in L.A. is unclear.

"The airspace in one region can have many different characteristics than the airspace in another region," an FAA spokesman said. In fact, the agency cited Long Island's "unique" characteristics, including its geography, that made it possible to direct helicopters off shore.

Also, much of Long Island's helicopter traffic travels between the same places — the city and the Hamptons — "unlike helicopter traffic in urban areas, where the destination points and reasons for using a helicopter diverge widely," the FAA said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who introduced the Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act, has noted that the "steady swarm of helicopters" flying over L.A. includes news crews, tourists, paparazzi and business travelers. L.A. air traffic also includes police and fire helicopters.

Similar legislation targeting L.A. helicopter noise has been introduced in the House by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village).

richard.simon@latimes.com

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