Stopping the Chop Up the Hudson

Helicopters at Pier 6. | JACKSON CHEN

Helicopters at Pier 6. | JACKSON CHEN

BY YANNIC RACK | The future of the city’s helicopter tour industry is up in the air after frustrated residents and elected officials sounded off about the noisy birds at City Hall last week.

“Residents are so disgusted with what’s been going on that there’s an entire organization to Stop the Chop,” said Upper West Side City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal ahead of a November 12 Council hearing on legislation to curb the copters.

“These bills before the Council are a critical first step in reducing health and quality-of-life issues that exist because of these tourist helicopters,” she said.

Rosenthal and two colleagues, Margaret Chin from Lower Manhattan and Carlos Menchaca from Brooklyn, have introduced a set of bills that would effectively boot the helicopter sightseeing industry from New York City.

The lawmakers say the legislation is overdue after years of complaints about incessant noise and noxious fumes caused by the choppers along their route from the tip of Lower Manhattan up the Hudson River to Washington Heights.

But helicopter-tour operators argue that the economic benefits to the city outweigh the suffering of residents along the path of the tours and near the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.

Before the hearing, the copter critics and helicopter huggers held dueling rallies on the steps of City Hall.

Locals complained that the cacophonic copters make normal life almost impossible in large parts of Manhattan.

West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal at a speaks at a rally that drew other elected officials opposed to the Hudson River helicopter tours, including (l. to r.), State Senator Brad Hoylman, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. | YANNIC RACK

West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal speaks at a rally that drew other elected officials opposed to the Hudson River helicopter tours, including (l. to r.) State Senator Brad Hoylman, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. | YANNIC RACK

“I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for almost 40 years — my home is now a bunker in a war zone that offers little refuge from the thunderous roar and shaking vibrations caused by helicopter tours,” said Rhonda Waggoner, one of the residents who showed up for the hearing.

“On good weather days there are more than 300 flights a day,” Rosenthal said. “Because they run a loop on the Upper West Side, from Downtown Manhattan up to the George Washington Bridge and back, each flight has two points of noise impact — so it’s over 600 quality-of-life violations a day for Upper West Side residents.”

Tour company workers said the whirlybird whiners should just shut up or get out.

“These people need to move away, themselves,” said Luz Herrera, a customer service rep for Liberty Helicopters, the city’s largest air-tour operator. “They want to live in the city with the commodities of the city — if you live here, you have to pay the price.”

Sam Goldstein, deputy director of the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council, was more diplomatic.

“We are here because our livelihoods are under assault,” he said. “Don’t destroy our families, and don’t destroy our jobs.”

Although residents and elected officials from as far away as Queens, Brooklyn, and even New Jersey, showed up to blast the boisterous birds, the epicenter of the problem is in Lower Manhattan.

The Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 near the Battery is the only heliport in the city that allows sightseeing helicopters to land and take off.

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

“This heliport continues to plague our community with noise and threats to air quality and safety,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chair of Downtown’s Community Board 1, which has vehemently opposed the tours for years.

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

Mickey Hart, Liberty Helicopter’s marketing director, leads a rally of those who support Manhattan’s helicopter industry. | YANNIC RACK

Mickey Hart, Liberty Helicopter’s marketing director, leads a rally of those who support Manhattan’s helicopter industry. | YANNIC RACK

Opponents of the air-tour industry had more politicians on their side at the hearing, but helicopter boosters boasted the support of the city’s top elected official — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in the form of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

The de Blasio administration opposes scrapping the choppers in part because the EDC gets $2.9 million in annual rent from the operator of the Downtown heliport, Saker Aviation, which hosts five air-tour companies.

“As currently drafted, the administration does not support either of the proposed legislation,” said EDC chief of staff James Katz during a sometimes-tense exchange with the Council members.

Katz also cited a 2012 study by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation that said the industry benefits the city’s economy to the tune of $32 million from the roughly 200 jobs it provides, and nearly $10 million in additional tourism.

But elected officials said that the city shouldn’t put the interests of a single, narrow industry above those of its own citizens.

“The helicopter industry is a nuisance. We cannot protect a single tourist experience… at the expense of the quality of life of thousands of New Yorkers,” said West Side Congressmember Jerrold Nadler.

A 2010 plan by the EDC already aimed at curbing sightseeing choppers by eliminating “short tour” flights (between four and eight minutes), cancelling tours over Central Park and the Empire State Building, and restricting choppers to follow one of two designated routes on the Hudson River.

The helicopter advocates, supported by EDC, fired back that they have cooperated in the past — even cutting down their flight times — and are open to working with the city to further lower their impact.

“It’s hard to propose any kind of compromise when we have a gun to our heads,” Goldstein told the Council members.

On a clear summer day more than 300 helicopter tours can leave Pier 6 Downtown for trips up and down the Hudson River. | JACKSON CHEN

On a clear summer day more than 300 helicopter tours can leave Pier 6 Downtown for trips up and down the Hudson River. | JACKSON CHEN

At the hearing, Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn also questioned whether the EDC paid as much attention to citizens’ suffering as it does to economic metrics.

“It’s easy to measure jobs and money. I know it’s hard to measure misery,” said Lander, “but I suppose my question is, have you tried? Have you done something to evaluate just how miserable it is?”

Katz acknowledged that “it’s a great question, and well framed,” but said the EDC had not gone beyond looking at 311 calls, which he said showed only 162 helicopter-noise complaints in the past year.

But local pols said that figure is irrelevant because they get thousands of direct complaints from their fed-up constituents.

“Residents are so sick and tired of this that they have given up on calling 311 at all,” said Rosenthal.

The Council has not yet set the date for a vote on the legislation.

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