City extends tour-helicopter concession for another five years

Years of noise complaints about the busy Downtown Manhattan Heliport have prompted city lawmakers to propose banning sightseeing helicopters from the city.
Photo by Jackson Chen
The city has extended the contract to allow helicopter tours from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport for another five years — at least.


A group of mayoral appointees voted to extend the deal allowing tourist helicopters to operate from Downtown’s Pier 6 — over the opposition of elected officials who hoped to deny any contract that would allow the locally loathed industry to persist.

All of the appointed members of the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee voted on July 13 in favor of extending the concession allowing Saker Aviation Services to operate helicopter tours out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport for another five years, while writing into the contract the terms of an agreement reached earlier this year to cut the number of flights in half by 2017.

But the only elected officials with a vote on the panel — Borough President Gale Brewer and Comptroller Scott Stringer — voted against the new contract, arguing that the helicopter-tour industry should be banished from Lower Manhattan entirely.

“There should be no tourist helicopters in New York City, period,” said Stringer, who preceded Brewer as Borough President. “They provide little economic payback and instead bombard our communities with unrelenting noise and pollution, which is why they’ve been banned elsewhere in the five boroughs.”

“Helicopter tours for a handful of people inflict noise and pollution on thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers, with little in the way of economic benefit to show for it,” said Brewer. “We should get rid of helicopter tourism entirely.”

The concession extension, which passed with a 4–2 vote, will allow the high-flying tour guides to operate out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport until Apr. 30, 2021, while giving the city the option to extend that date by a year, twice.

The committee also voted to ratify agreements reached between Saker and the Economic Development Corporation, which controls the heliport, to reduce the number of tourist flights overall, ban flights on Sundays, cease flights over Governors Island and Staten Island, and monitor air quality around the heliport, along with requiring the operator to research and implement new technologies to mitigate noise pollution and emissions as they become commercially feasible.

But those modifications, which were designed to ease the burden the industry places on residents, are ill defined and inadequate in providing real benefits for locals, according to Stringer.

“This flawed compromise fails to give the city the enforceable oversight it would need to restore any semblance of peace and quiet for hundreds of thousands of residents,” Stringer said in a statement.

In particular, the agreement fails to institute any real means of holding Saker accountable for air and noise pollution in not specifying what measures the EDC can take when those limits are exceeded, according to Stringer. The agreement also fails to specify to what degree Saker must invest in research to mitigate helicopter noise and emissions, and when those measures should be considered economically feasible, Stringer said.

The terms codified in the new concession were agreed to by EDC and Saker in January as a way to preempt legislation introduced by Councilmember Margaret Chin which would have effectively banned the helicopter tourism industry in New York City by imposing noise limits that helicopters used in the industry could not meet.

Tour flights thunder in an out of the Pier 6 heliport 28 times every hour during the day, six days a week, according to figures from the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council, amounting to more than 100,000 take-offs and landings each year.

Despite that, the number of 311 complaints relating to chopper noise is relatively low, with just under 1,300 complaints relating to helicopter noise in 2014, compared to nearly 130,000 complaints related to noisy parties.

But that number provides little comfort to locals who live around the busy helipad.

“It’s truly a constant onslaught of noise,” said Craig Abruzzo, vice president of Stop the Chop, an advocacy group that has been working for years to clip the wings of the helicopter industry in Lower Manhattan.