Downtowners not satisfied with city’s tourist chopper deal

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 struck a deal to cut helicopter tours by half over the next year, but locals near the Downtown Manhattan Heliport still want to ban the choppers entirely.


The city may have reached a deal to reduce the helicopter-tour traffic by half, but residents of Lower Manhattan say they still want to a law banning the noisy birds from the city.

John Dellaportas, who has lived in Battery Park City for 22 years, said he felt betrayed by the councilmembers who were pushing to ban the industry, which operates exclusively out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport and has long been a nuisance to residents along the Hudson River.

“It’s a complete sell-out by our elected officials. They promised us they were going to try to enact a complete ban, and instead behind our backs cut a deal with the helicopter industry,” said Dellaportas, who also heads the advocacy group Stop The Chop NYNJ.

The arrangement was hammered out not by the Council, but by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which owns the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, to preempt the far more drastic legislation proposed by city lawmakers that would effectively banish the helicopter-tour industry from Manhattan.

Helicopter-tour operators will have to cut half of all flights at the Pier 6 heliport near The Battery by January 2017, and end all flights on Sundays by April 1 this year. The cutback will be phased in over the course of the year, with a 20-percent reduction from 2015 levels beginning June 1, and a 40-percent reduction by Oct. 1. The city estimates that by this time next year, the agreement will have eliminated nearly 30,000 helicopter flights annually, but Dellaportas is not impressed.

“The helicopters will continue to fly, ten hours a day, six days a week,” he said. “It’s still a pretty steady din, so I don’t think this will have any less impact for us.”

Those that have lived near the copters for years — with flights thundering in an out of the heliport 28 times every hour during the day — said last week that the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

Shortly after the deal was announced, Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee unanimously passed a resolution urging the city not to renew the current concession agreement at the heliport once it expires in July 2018.

Committee members doubt that the deal will even be effective, since it will rely on monthly flight counts from the tour operators themselves.

“The helicopter companies are not trustworthy,” said committee co-chair Susan Cole. “So this will probably be at least a third to a half higher [than what they report], if not more.”

The mayor’s office said that the flight counts would be periodically verified by an independent third party — which will be paid for by the operators.

A chorus of Downtown elected officials who have long crusaded against the tour-chopper scourge, hailed the deal as a step in the right direction — but Dellaportas can take heart that they vowed to continue their push to eliminate the choppers altogether.

“We have long called for a complete ban on nonessential tourist helicopters from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, and still support a full ban,” proclaimed a joint statement by the pols, including state Sen. Daniel Squadron, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Assemblymember Deborah Glick.

“We consider it a half-measure,” a spokesperson for Nadler, who has been working to curb the copters for decades, later told Downtown Express.

Nonetheless, the Councilmembers who had grilled the  E.D.C. and the tour operators at a contentious council hearing back in November, claimed victory for forcing the city to finally do something.

“As Council Members, we are proud to have pushed forward legislation that helped give our constituents a voice and a rallying point in the fight to reduce noise and air pollution caused by the increasing number of tourist helicopter flights,” said Downtown’s Councilmember Margaret Chin, Brooklyn’s Carlos Menchaca, and the Upper West Side’s Helen Rosenthal in a joint statement.

Asked by CB1 members if the city’s deal alleviated the need a ban, a representative from Councilmember Margaret Chin assured the panel that the legislation was still on the table.

“The legislation has not been withdrawn,” said Chin spokesman Paul Leonard, but he hinted that it would stay on hold until lawmakers see whether the city’s deal makes a real difference.

“We will push forward if the industry does not abide by the terms of their agreement,” he said.

More than 59,000 flights took off from Pier 6 overall last year, with the busy summer tourist season seeing the bulk of traffic. Leonard cautioned that the phased reductions will be enforced on a month-to-month basis compared to the same time last year — so the summer months will continue to see more flights than the quieter winter months even after reductions take effect.

Saker Aviation, the concessionaire for the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, also agreed to establish a system to monitor air quality in the vicinity of the heliport and provide monthly reports to the E.D.C. and the Council. Saker has promised to reduce idling by helicopters between flights as well.