In an unprecedented action aimed at limiting or eliminating noisy helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from use of the East Hampton Airport, in East Hampton, Long Island, New York (“Airport”), on April 6, 2015, the East Hampton Town Board, operator of the airport, imposed strict noise limits, including a curfew, on the hitherto largely unregulated Airport. The greatest source of the problem that has generated a flood of local noise complaints appears to be the increasing helicopter traffic that ferries well-to-do city dwellers and LaGuardia and Kennedy passengers who live on Long Island to the beach community. The noise has apparently increased with the imposition of a new rule by the FAA requiring helicopters to fly off the North Shore of Long Island, and cross Long Island at, and into, East Hampton on the South Shore. The proposed regulatory protocol is dramatic.
California Legislators Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of Burbank achieved the seemingly impossible in Congress’ January 14 passage of the $1.012 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, H.R. 3547 (“Appropriations Act”). The Appropriations Act contains a provision, § 119D, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to achieve reductions in helicopter noise throughout the Los Angeles Basin by 2015. That section specifies certain voluntary measures, which, if unsuccessful in achieving the desired reductions within one year, must give way to FAA regulations to achieve the stated purposes.
Specifically, § 119D mandates that:
“The Secretary shall (1) evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles, and make adjustments to such routes if the adjustments would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks; (2) analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles County; (3) develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news gathering; (4) conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and to increase awareness of noise sensitive areas and events; (5) work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system; and (6) continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators: Provided, That not later than one year after enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall begin a regulatory process related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the Secretary can demonstrate significant progress in undertaking the actions required under the previous proviso.”
Although a seeming triumph for noise impacted communities, the Appropriations Act is neither an unalloyed victory nor does it set a precedent for future legislative initiatives for the following reasons:
In a surprising climax to the long controversy concerning helicopter flights and attendant noise impacts on the North Shore communities of New York’s Suffolk County, the FAA, on July 6, issued a “Final Rule,” making mandatory the current voluntary flight path for helicopters one mile offshore, but allowing the “Final Rule” to sunset on August 6, 2014, two years from the effective date, “unless the FAA determines a permanent rule is merited.” The route commences 20 miles northeast of LaGuardia, near Huntington, New York, and remains approximately one mile offshore until reaching Orient Point, near the eastern end of Long Island, with deviations allowed for safety reasons, and to allow helicopters to transit over land to reach their ultimate destinations.
The FAA discloses that its decision to promulgate the original voluntary rule arose from the numerous complaints of noise from helicopter overflights brought to its attention by Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Representative Tim Bishop of Long Island’s North Shore in October, 2007. The subsequent mandatory rule apparently resulted from continued political pressure by residents who are “unbearably and negatively” impacted, particularly during the summer months when the number of helicopters, as well as deviations from the voluntary routing, seem to increase dramatically. The real surprises in the “Final Rule,” however, are FAA’s rationale for: (1) making the route mandatory, a rationale which seems to apply equally to currently voluntarily procedures at other airports; and (2) the Rule’s sunset provision.
Representative Howard Berman of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley has been getting an earful lately from constituents disgruntled by constant, low level overflights from sightseeing, paparazzi and media helicopters from nearby Burbank Airport. In response, Berman introduced the Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act which would require the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to establish rules on flight paths and minimum altitudes for helicopter operations above residential neighborhoods within one year of the bill having been signed into law. The bill would contain exemptions for emergency responders and the military. Surprisingly, while FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. section 91.119 establishes minimum altitudes for fixed-wing aircraft, it exempts helicopters from such requirements. “A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section, provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA.” 14 C.F.R. section 91.119(d)(1).
Residents of Eastern Long Island are awaiting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Final Rule regarding the New York North Shore Helicopter Route. If the Final Rule tracks the FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), helicopters flying along Long Island’s northern shoreline will be required to use the North Shore Helicopter Route. Pilots may deviate from the route only if necessary for safety or when required by weather conditions. The North Shore Route was added to the New York Helicopter Chart in 2008. However the route was developed for visual flight rules (VFR), and use of the route has been voluntary. The new rule would direct pilots to fly at an altitude of 2,500 feet, one mile offshore, and require that when crossing overland they overfly the least populated areas.
The FAA cites 49 U.S.C. sections 40103 and 44715 as authority for the rule. Under section 40103(b)(2), the FAA Administrator has authority to “prescribe traffic regulations on the flight of aircraft (including regulations on safe altitudes) for . . . (B) protecting individuals and property on the ground.” Section 44715(a) provides that to “relieve and protect the public health and welfare from aircraft noise” the Administrator, “as he deems necessary, shall prescribe . . . (ii) regulations to control and abate aircraft noise . . .” If implemented, the Rule would establish the first-ever mandatory regulations that will set minimum altitudes and establish flight patterns for helicopters on Long Island based on noise abatement, rather than on safety or efficient airspace management. The FAA acknowledges in the NPRM that the rule is in response to complaints from, among others, New York Senator Charles Schumer and former senator Hillary Clinton.