Airport’s Future Is Up in the Air

Expressions of outrage this week about an announcement by the Corcoran real estate firm that it would fly select potential clients by helicopter from Manhattan to the South Fork to view properties was predictable, if somewhat overblown. While the promotion might well add to air traffic, its effect will be negligible when compared to the ever-increasing use of East Hampton Airport by noisy aircraft of all sorts.

Hopes for a quieter airport were set back last year by the helicopter industry’s court case against the Town of East Hampton. The United States Supreme Court now may or may not take up the town’s final appeal of the Court of Appeals ruling that rejected its contention that it was free to set operating hours at the airport independent of Federal Aviation Administration approval. There is a high probability that the court may decline to consider the case, which would mean that the decision against the town’s home rule would stand.

The immediate effect of the Supreme Court’s declining the matter or agreeing with the earlier decision would be that the town would have to seek the F.A.A.’s blessing for any future limits. A degree of hope can be found in the supportive views of Representative Lee Zeldin and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, who could advocate on behalf of East Hampton — and other noise-affected communities nationwide — in Congress. However, they will face a formidable adversary in the aviation industry, which fiercely opposes what it sees as patchwork regulations.

What the helicopter companies and its allies have never understood is that their refusal to do enough to reduce noise could trigger a nuclear option — the town’s simply shutting down the airport for good. It was notable last fall when State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., not known to be an anti-aviation firebrand, suggested that there might be reason to doubt that East Hampton Town should be in the airport business at all. 

What was once unthinkable, except to an enraged few, has now become something worth considering. With helicopter noise likely to return to pre-curfew levels at all hours of the day and night, expect the close-the- airport drumbeat to get louder. With an important local election in East Hampton in November, how the candidates for supervisor and town board propose dealing with it will be something to listen for closely.