Looking to Punish Night Fliers

Board eyes hefty fines, shame, while F.A.A. may send copter route south
For years, town officials and an East Hampton Airport noise abatement advisory committee, which was disbanded by the current town administration, have grappled over how to minimize aircraft noise. Morgan McGivern

    Although the majority of the helicopters and other planes that fly into and out of East Hampton Airport comply with a voluntary nighttime curfew, according to Jim Brundige, the airport manager, those that don’t comply remain a disturbance to people who live under their flight paths, Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said at a town board work session on Tuesday. Councilwoman Theresa Quigley is one of them, and she suggested hitting curfew violators with a $25,000 fine.
    “I have constituents who are upset,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I want to shut the airport down between 11 at night and 7 in the morning.”
    “Why can’t we put in the ability to close that airport, or at least have huge fees for those that land after hours?” Ms. Quigley asked.
    Not so easy, said Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the town board’s airport liaison. “We’re limited in our authority over a general aviation airport,” he said — hence, the voluntary curfew. A mandatory curfew cannot be imposed.
    The Federal Aviation Administration, which has jurisdiction over general aviation facilities like East Hampton’s airport, does not allow airports to be closed and dictates other details of their operation.
    Mr. Stanzione said this week that he has been working with Mr. Brundige and John Jilnicki, the town attorney, to examine what options the town does have to prevent after-hours landings.
    “They’re okay with us imposing some penalties,” Mr. Jilnicki said Tuesday of the F.A.A. “Their question is whether or not it becomes an impediment” to aviation.
    One tack the town could take, Mr. Stanzione said, could be described as the humiliation approach — like that used by police departments that publicize the names of men who solicit prostitutes. “We can publish the names of those companies that don’t comply with the curfew . . . and put public pressure on those guys,” Mr. Stanzione said.
    A device at the airport called an AirSCENE compiles data on takeoffs and landings, including the time of day and planes’ identifying tail numbers.
    Mr. Stanzione has been working with a multitown committee formed by East Hampton to address helicopter noise across Long Island — much of which comes from those traveling between New York City and East Hampton.
    He said he is optimistic that the F.A.A. ill enact regulations that will direct helicopters on a southern route toward East Hampton rather than along a northern route that crosses more Long Island communities — a pathway likely to be unpopular with residents of pricey south-of-the-highway real estate and that could result in some political fallout. Nonetheless, Mr. Stanzione said, the burden of helicopter traffic should be more evenly shared. He said the alternate route, and an increase in the minimum altitude for helicopters from 2,500 to 3,000 feet under normal conditions, was “under active consideration” by the F.A.A.
    For years, town officials and an East Hampton Airport noise abatement advisory committee, which was disbanded by the current town administration, have grappled over how to minimize aircraft noise.
    To what degree the town’s hands are tied by the F.A.A. has been debated, with some taking the position that East Hampton Town could gain more control over its airport if it stops taking F.A.A. money.
    Some F.A.A. “grant assurances” now in effect — a set of strictures governing the operation of the airport, tied to federal grants the town has already accepted — could expire in 2014 (barring a challenge to a lawsuit settlement), including one that addresses curfews, and others will expire in 2021. Members of the now-defunct noise abatement committee had said that would provide an opportunity to put local regulations in place.
    After the town board adopted a new airport master plan last year, it was sued by members of the community who claimed the town failed to first conduct adequate environmental studies, including a full examination of the effects of airport noise.
    “Can we turn the [airport] lights off after 11?” Ms. Quigley asked at Tuesday’s work session. Nighttime airport lights are on an automatic timer and are illuminated when planes come in, Mr. Jilnicki explained. “Can we turn off the automatic?” the councilwoman asked.
    “The truth is, it’s not as minimal as you or Jim Brundige say it is,” Ms. Quigley said to Mr. Stanzione, referring to nighttime air traffic.
    About 98 percent of the pilots using the airport comply with the voluntary curfew, Mr. Stanzione said. And of those who violate the curfew, Mr. Brundige explained by phone this week, most are taking off or landing within just a few minutes of the limited hours, which are between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. “People coming in at 3 in the morning are extremely rare,” he said.
    In June, Mr. Brundige said Tuesday afternoon, there were 63 curfew violations out of a total of 2,730 “operations,” or takeoffs and landings — just over 2 percent. Over all this summer, Mr. Stanzione said at the board meeting, total air traffic is down a bit from the last three years’ average.
    “I understand the consternation,” Mr. Stanzione told Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson on Tuesday. “I am exploring the limits with counsel.”
    At present, pilots making late landings are charged a 25-percent surcharge over the regular landing fee, which varies according to the type of aircraft. The F.A.A. could consider a much higher fee prohibitive and disallow it. But, Mr. Stanzione said by phone Monday, “I would like to push that envelope.”
    Once planes are on the ground, he said, the town can impose regulations on them, such as limiting the time engines can idle.
     At Tuesday’s work session, Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson called for immediate action on aircraft landings that cause noise disturbance. “I would propose that this board approve hiring expert F.A.A. attorneys to come in with an answer next week,” Ms. Quigley said. No vote was taken.