Things are bad in the air around East Hampton Airport. Even though just how bad may be open to debate, there is no question that residents across the North and South Forks have been suffering from aircraft noise. The good news is that relief may be on the horizon.
According to the latest numbers, flights in and out of the town-owned airfield have increased substantially over last year. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 4 helicopter traffic jumped by almost 44 percent over the same period in 2013. Fixed-wing aircraft using the airport rose as well. The surprising 2014 numbers come as officials are already grappling with accumulated complaints about noise from earlier years and a previous town administration that spent four years basically giving helicopter operators a free pass. Better weather this summer may have played a part in the dramatic spike, but people were also complaining last year, which underscores the fact that noise is a longstanding problem and cannot be ignored.
Unless East Hampton Town acts, route changes mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration could be approaching that would only anger a different set of residents. At a meeting last week in Southold with that town’s supervisor, F.A.A. staff, Representative Tim Bishop, and aides to Senator Charles E. Schumer, the discussion was about shifting flight paths away from the North Fork. But the numbers show that moving traffic around is not going to make a meaningful difference on the ground here. Whether the F.A.A. agrees to direct the loudest aircraft over Northwest Woods, Georgica Pond, Noyac, or the North Fork, some people are going to suffer unfairly for the convenience of a tiny portion of summer visitors and part-time residents.
Paid spokesmen for the helicopter industry have predicted dire consequences if airport limits are put in place. These claims, even if credible, do not outweigh the expectation of peace and quiet by residents of both forks. Officials from all of the affected towns and villages should work with the F.A.A. on an aggressive plan to reduce the total number of flights and curtail the hours helicopters can use the airport. The rights of those who live here must take precedence over commercial interests and the desire of some of the well-off to avoid the maddenly slow Long Island Expressway. You know what? If a certain number of weekend hedge-funders and others decide to spend their vacation time elsewhere, we’ll manage just fine without them.
Unfortunately, as the debate over airport traffic raged, conditions there deteriorated, particularly putting private pilots at risk. East Hampton Town officials are moving quickly now on several safety upgrades. These include lighting, tree work, and reconstruction of a crumbling and dangerous secondary runway. All of this can be paid for without F.A.A. money by using income from landing fees and other airport revenue. This is important because federal dollars come with attached strings, which make local regulation of noisy aircraft more difficult.
East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez has taken on a monumental task in getting many of the airport’s constituencies to talk to one another. She is to be congratulated for helping to guide the town toward likely new rules on noise and much-needed repairs.
The emerging united front among local pilots and anti-noise advocates must include the F.A.A. as well, since its cooperation will be essential if the town, as expected, imposes helicopter curfews, so-called slot limits on the number of landings and takeoffs, or other measures.