By Scott Fischbein
Upper West Siders have been growing more stressed about helicopters hovering over the neighborhood for the past year, and now it looks like a whole new fleet may be on its way.
Two companies — Blade and Ross Aviation — are teaming up to offer commuter helicopter rides between New York City and Westchester County Airport, with service starting as soon as this month.
New Yorkers have spent more time at home over the past year than ever before, and police and television helicopters hovered over the city during protests over the summer. City records show a 130% increase in calls about the issue of noise pollution from helicopters, despite there being a four-month period at the beginning of the pandemic when tourist flights over the city were suspended. “This is really a quality of life issue for New Yorkers,” Robert Gottheim, a spokesman for Congressman Jerry Nadler, said in an interview.
Blade, which did not respond to requests for comments, hopes to launch daily flights to the Westchester County Airport from Manhattan’s West 30th Street heliport, which along with the East 34th Street and the Pier 6 (also known as the Wall Street heliport), are the three heliports in Manhattan. The flights are expected to start in March, cost $175 per person and take 12 minutes. Blade stated in a press release that it hopes that the option for people to commute to work in Manhattan from Westchester and Connecticut via helicopter will cut down on pollution from cars. Blade does not own a helicopter fleet, but instead, much like Uber, arranges helicopter flights on behalf of operators and clients to depart NYC for destinations up to 200 miles away. It’s also working on launching Electric Vertical Aircraft service for commuter flights, which it expects to be ready by 2025, and allow the industry to reduce noise and carbon emissions.
Blade’s commuter helicopter plans face pushback from people who have grown tired of the buzz, believing the service promotes the industry and its wealthy clients over the peace of mind of average New Yorkers.
Melissa Elstein and Andrew Rosenthal are on the board of Stop the Chop, a tax-exempt organization that aims to reduce the noise and environmental pollution of helicopters over the city. In an interview, they referred to the Upper West Side as a “helicopter highway,” where the noise is oppressive for residents. “For the person on the ground this [expanded helicopter routes] will affect them mentally and physically, and in terms of environmental impact this always affects poorer communities more heavily. There’s no way to get to the Westchester airport without flying over peoples homes…For the average person during en economic downturn, commuting by helicopter just isn’t an option,” Elstein explained during a phone interview. “Millions of New Yorkers are suffering for the convenience of the .1%.”
Previous actions taken by the city do not appear to have made a significant dent in the frequency of helicopter traffic. In 2016, New York City reached an agreement with the Pier 6 heliport to limit the amount of tourist flights over the city by 50% and to restrict all non-essential flights on Sundays. However, tourist and commuter helicopters can simply depart from New Jersey heliports instead and then enter New York City airspace. Although the city and the industry agreed to make commuter helicopters stay over the Hudson or East River, opponents say that companies don’t always abide by those rules — and even if they do, helicopter noise can travel for up to two miles. “Water routes are not a panacea,” Rosenthal said.
Stop the Chop is a supporter of H.R. 4880, the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019. The bill was introduced by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in 2019 and is now being co-sponsored by Congressmembers Jerry Nadler, Nydia Velazquez, Yvette Clarke, Jose Serrano, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It would seek to remedy the limitations of previous legislation and agreements between residents, the city, the aviation industry, and federal agencies. The bill would prohibit all nonessential helicopter flights, including waterways within the city’s jurisdiction — allowing for the continued presence of law enforcement, emergency response, military and news media helicopters in city airspace, while prohibiting tourist or commuter flights, even those coming from New Jersey.
For some, such legislation is not only necessary to make the city livable, but safe as well. “We’ve been lucky how few helicopter crashes we’ve had in New York City…our airspace is currently like the Wild West,” Gottheim said. “We have an uncontrolled airspace that operates on visual flight rules of ‘see and avoid’ without any beacon based controls.”
The office of Borough President Gale Brewer voiced its support for a solution to complaints about helicopter safety, noise and pollution in a phone interview. In December 2020, Brewer’s office helped to convene a task force that includes industry representatives, community associations, the FAA and New Jersey local politicians. The task force plans to meet again in March.
“At the March meeting, we’ll use the information we gathered to brainstorm solutions and legislation with NJ,” Brewer’s office emailed. “Also, through our NJ outreach, we’ve learned that there is interest in regulating the industry and that pending legislation exists. For example, NJ introduced S479 in 2020 to ban all tourism helicopters. That would be AMAZING if it got passed!”
Brewer believes that the tourist helicopters “appear to be the main noise contributors,” with commuter, police and news flights less of an issue at the moment, her office said.
Complaints about helicopters are not just limited to New York City. Similar groups have been started in other areas, from East Hampton to the Grand Canyon and Hawaii.
Rob Burke, the executive director of Hudson River Community Sailing said that in addition to the noise, the pollution produced at the West 34th Heliport makes sailing both unpleasant and unhealthy for people trying to enjoy the wilderness of New York City waterways. “I never smell car exhaust coming off of the Westside Highway, but I always smell the jet fuel of idling helicopters at that heliport. It’s essentially like being next to an airport,” he said. A 2006 study done by the Dutch government concluded that helicopters emit 3 to 5 times as much carbon emissions as diesel-burning cars do per mile.
“We have to have a balance between the valuable portion of the City’s tourism industry and the health and safety of the residents of New York,” Gottheim said. “We don’t want an industry that’s so loud, so polluting, so dangerous and so poorly regulated expanding in New York City.”