Two Reactions Warranted for Two Airport Proposals

The East Hampton Town Board acted properly last Thursday in agreeing to the possible sale of bonds to cover the cost of work on a taxiway at East Hampton Airport. However, another airport question — whether to increase the height of its control tower and move it to another position — is far stickier.

Borrowing money by issuing bonds is not the only option for the taxiway project, estimated at $2.1 million. The town anticipates that its airport fund, which is like a separate bank account, will have a sizable surplus, which could pay for the work out of pocket without the expense of interest to bondholders over time. The work, if and when it is approved, would connect two existing taxiways, bringing them up to contemporary standards. It also would cover the cost of replacing directional lighting on the main runway. Both the taxiway and lighting projects are overdue and are part of what should be seen as routine upkeep, which do not by themselves appear to be a back-door expansion of the airport’s capacity.

The tower is another matter. 

In 2012, when the tower was installed in a hasty, secretive deal that was billed merely as temporary, it was pitched by its backers as an experiment to control noise from helicopters. Few really believed that at the time, including the controllers themselves. The doubts have been borne out, as air traffic has, if anything, increased, and the town now has spent enormous sums and countless staff hours fighting aircraft interests and the Federal Aviation Administration for some limits. 

The thinking in 2012 was that restricting access to the airport was the only way to control noise; the same argument was at the core of the town’s more recent shot at regulating the loudest aircraft, which was rejected by a federal court. Today, helicopters and other aircraft are routed into East Hampton Airport by controllers in weather conditions that previously would have sent them elsewhere, anti-noise advocates say.

Now, after helicopters were sent on cloudy days last summer over several Sag Harbor neighborhoods when controllers could not see their approach from the south and southeast, there is pressure from the town airport manager, Jim Brundige, for a new, taller tower to be built on a spot with better sightlines. 

Opponents say that would be premature in light of the noise study being conducted at great expense as a first step toward new rules that might gain F.A.A. approval. East Hampton Airport might not be seen as even needing an air traffic control tower once the so-called Part 161 study is completed. 

That uncertainty might be behind the push for a new tower. Airport interests would certainly like to see the town commit to a new $800,000 tower before a report comes in that might conclude one was counter to noise-control goals. That seems ample reason for the town board to put on ice any further discussion of replacing the existing tower. When airport interests are in a rush to get something done, residents and officials alike are right to be wary.