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.