NYC lawmakers seek to ban ‘non-essential’ chopper flights from city heliports

Helicopter flying over East River in NYC
City Council Members are looking to ban non-essential helicopters flights from NYC heliports to reduce noise and air pollution.
Photo via Getty Images

New York City lawmakers are seeking to ban “non-essential” helicopter flights from city-owned heliports, in a bid to curb excessive noise and pollution they argue is generated simply for unnecessary flights by tourists and wealthy commuters.

The city sees thousands of helicopter trips originate from its two city-owned heliports, but those trips are significantly outpaced by the growing number of complaints to 311 about them. More than 59,000 complaints were made to 311 about helicopter noise in 2023, more than double the 26,000 recorded in 2022.

“What happens is that you can’t hear yourself think,” said Judy Mann, a tour guide on Governors Island who says sometimes helicopters can pass by at low altitude every minute. “Think of a poetry reading contest. Think of a family that comes to a place to have a beautiful picnic in a gorgeous spot with amazing views of the harbor. And there’s the unending and relentless helicopter noise, it feels sometimes like you’re in a war zone.”

It’s not just the scenic island in the harbor where choppers bring extreme levels of unwanted noise. Residents of waterfront neighborhoods near the city’s heliports, at East 34th Street and Wall Street, say the noise is so constant and deafening that they must account for it in the course of their day-to-day lives.

“I hear from neighbors more about how angry and frustrated they are about helicopter noise than almost any other issue. And people are just at their wit’s end,” said City Council Member Lincoln Restler, a Democrat who represents waterfront Brooklyn neighborhoods in the flight path of tourist and commuter choppers. “It’s like when they go out to Brooklyn Bridge Park, they can’t have a conversation with the person next to them because the helicopter noise is too loud.”

Governors Island tour guide Judy Mann says the constant whirr of helicopters makes her feel like she’s in a “war zone.”Photo by Ben Brachfeld

“We can no longer enjoy a peaceful day in our parks, along our waterfronts, or in our homes,” added Melissa Elstein, an Upper West Sider who chairs anti-whirlybird advocacy group Stop The Chop NY/NJ. “Many if not most of our parks and waterways have become hellish helicopter highways instead of providing a peaceful respite from the busy city streets.”

Helicopters also generate much more pollution per capita than do private cars, to say nothing of public transit. One idling helicopter, as many do over city waterways when giving helitours, produces as much greenhouse gas emissions as 40 idling cars, said Council Member Amanda Farías, the Democratic majority leader and chair of the Economic Development Committee, in an amNewYork Metro op-ed.

“People are frustrated and as it stands – our city’s helicopter industry is bringing New Yorkers minimum benefit, and maximum harm,” wrote Farías.

Clearing the air

Now, as the city seeks to transition to largely noiseless and clean electric aerial taxis, lawmakers are hoping to enact legislation that would entirely ban “non-essential” flights from the city’s two heliports until electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) technology is approved for civilian transport use by the federal government.

That would allow police, EMS, and news organizations to continue flying, but would put the kibosh on sightseeing flights for tourists and aerial commutes to the airport or the Hamptons by New York’s most well-heeled, flights which lawmakers say are unnecessary.

“It is long past time for us to end the extreme noise and the air pollution caused by the helicopter industry in New York City, just so the privileged few can get a faster path to the Hamptons or JFK,” said Restler. “These folks should be in cars, or better yet public transit, to get where they need to go. There is no reason that these people should be causing such extreme disturbances in our communities day-in and day-out.”

eVTOL tech is not expected to win Federal Aviation Administration approval until at least next year, with commercial operations not expected in New York City until 2026, according to the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the quasi-public agency that manages the city’s revenue-generating assets like its waterfronts.

In the meantime, though, the Adams administration doesn’t appear intent to put any limits on the chopper industry, not that it will say it outright: EDC officials refused to publicly take a position on the ban bill, annoying City Council lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing.

The officials also publicly punted on bills that would require installation of “sound level meters” in high chopper traffic areas, as well as resolutions calling for the state to end non-essential flights from the West Side heliport (owned by the Hudson River Park Trust), establish a “noise tax” on flights in the city, and calling on the FAA to entirely ban non-essential flights to prevent would-be users from flying out of New Jersey.

EDC officials told lawmakers that the administration believes it can more decisively effect positive change to the industry through its franchise agreements with vendors, rather than through legislative force.

The city currently is seeking a vendor to transform the downtown heliport into a hub for clean, quiet eVTOLs.Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

“We recognize that community members have quality of life concerns about helicopter noise,” said Jennifer Sun, EDC’s executive vice president of planning. “And we are committed to leveraging our position in this space to address those concerns.”

EDC currently has a “request for proposals” (RFP) out for a new vendor to take over the franchise for the Wall Street heliport, where many of the most complained-about trips originate. The agency says that as part of the franchise agreement, whoever wins the contract will be required to build out electric charging infrastructure if and after eVTOLs win federal approval, and will be incentivized to proactively do so beforehand.

Once approval is secured, EDC suspects companies will immediately jump to corner the eVTOL market in the city.

“Particularly because of these noise issues, this is the top market for these companies,” said Adrian Fredriksson, EDC’s director of aviation.

EDC touted the $78 million in “economic impact” and 175 jobs directly supported by the industry, though opponents say this is a pittance compared to the overall city budget and economy and not worth the associated problems. The agency also noted that it has reduced helicopter operating hours by 30% in a bid to reduce noise complaints, though the cap on the number of flights — 30,000 — that can originate from the downtown heliport remains the same.

And the agency contends the huge number of 311 complaints are not quite what they seem. Fredriksson said that the vast majority of 311 complaints, about 90%, are coming from just 20 super-kvetchers, and contended that just 1% of those complaints were actually related to tourist flights. Restler, however, said that flights his constituents complained about were deemed by EDC to be non-tourist but in actuality were for sightseeing.

Intro 26, sponsored by Farías, currently has 10 co-sponsors, running the ideological gambit from Progressive Caucus Chair Shahana Hanif to conservative Common Sense Caucus members Bob Holden and Kalman Yeger.