Now, a Control Tower

After 22 years, an F.A.A.-approved airport plan

    With the Federal Aviation Administration’s conditional approval last week of an airport layout plan for East Hampton Airport, the installation of an air traffic control tower there can proceed. A control tower has long been envisioned as a way to provide relief to residents affected by noise from aircraft, especially helicopters. Plans for the control tower have been on hold for over a year, pending F.A.A. action.
    The layout plan was submitted for the agency’s review last December. East Hampton Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the town board’s representative  on airport matters, said this week that he had been working diligently to partner with the F.A.A. and mend fences with representatives at the agency, with which the town has had a complicated history.
    The last time East Hampton Airport had an F.A.A.-approved airport layout plan was in 1989. Lawsuits over the operation of the airport, some of which named the F.A.A., and questions about previous airport master plans and layout plans kept the situation in limbo.
     “The F.A.A.’s historic acknowledgement of the town’s airport assets provides the town with the ability to proceed with a number of airport initiatives,” Mr. Stanzione said at a town board meeting on Tuesday.
    With a resolution to be voted on tonight, the board is expected to hire DY Consultants, a firm that has previously worked with town officials on airport projects, including the most recent update of the airport master plan, to submit an immediate request to the F.A.A. for approval of a control tower.  Air traffic controllers could then direct aircraft onto routes designed to minimize noise disturbances.
    Besides issuing approval of the proposed location of the airport control “tower” — really a small structure that will house equipment and traffic controllers, who will be hired by the town — the F.A.A. must approve the reclassification of the skies around the airport as “controlled airspace.” The controlled area would include a five-mile radius from the center of the airport.
    Also this week, the F.A.A. took a step toward another initiative that could ease the helicopter noise burden, not only on local residents but those of other towns between the two points from which most flights begin and end: Manhattan and East Hampton.
    On Tuesday, agency representatives flew along a potential designated flight path traversing Long Island’s South Shore — an alternative to the northern route chosen by most pilots, which takes them over more residences than would the southern route.
    The F.A.A.’s willingness to consider a southern route also results from discussions and negotiations with the town, and from the work of a multi-town aircraft-noise advisory group, Mr. Stanzione said this week.
    The councilman plans to advance a discussion of other East Hampton Airport projects, such as the erection of deer fencing, and to recommend that he town seek F.A.A. grants to pay for them.
    The town’s acceptance of additional F.A.A. money is controversial. A number of those who have been pressing for a solution to aircraft noise disturbances, including members of the town’s disbanded airport noise advisory committee, have asserted that the town could enact tighter airport-use regulations when its agreements with the F.A.A., tied to grants that have been accepted, expire, some within a couple of years.
    Mr. Stanzione said that the increase in town authority would not be significant, as the F.A.A. maintains certain controls over general-aviation airports, and noted that it could be achieved, if at all, only after costly legal proceedings. The issues, he said, should be carefully outlined for public discussion, with advice from expert aviation attorneys.
    The F.A.A.-approved East Hampton Airport layout plan shows existing conditions at the airport. The agency excluded several potential improvements contemplated by the town, such as the closure of runway 16-34; changes to runway 4-22 that would require rerouting Daniel’s Hole Road, and a new fuel farm. Such changes will require separate federal environmental and final review.
    According to the town’s updated airport master plan, any future projects would be designed to maintain the airport as is, rather than to expand or diminish it. (The new master plan has been challenged in court by a group claiming that noise and other environmental issues were not adequately considered.)
    The town may only apply for federal money for F.A.A.-approved projects, which can cover up to 90 percent of the cost. Each future project, whether money is sought or not, would, in addition to F.A.A. review, be subject to a hearing before the town board, at which the public can weigh in, according to the town code.
    The airport control tower is not eligible for F.A.A. funding. As a small facility with just under 30,000 operations (takeoffs and landings) a year, East Hampton Airport does not meet the threshold at which the agency will pay for control towers — those with at least 60,000 operations a year.
    In December 2009, the town board accepted a proposal from Robinson Aviation to supply and staff a seasonal air traffic control center, at an average annual cost of $164,580 a year, based on projected staffing requirements at that time.
    According to Jim Brundige, the airport manager, the previous administration had envisioned having an air traffic controller on duty during only the busiest periods, such as weekends, while the current board may want “more aggressive coverage,” of up to 16 hours a day, five days a week.
    Fees paid by airport users raise enough money to cover annual operating costs, Mr. Brundige said, even generating an annual surplus, but not enough to pay for large capital projects.
    “In terms of pavement management, that’s the big nut, because it’s millions,” he said. For instance, he said, repairs needed on a runway ramp could cost $4 million, and the repaving of runway 4-22, which is closed but slated for reopening pursuant to the airport master plan, could be upward of that amount.
    “These are all safety things, to maintain the airport as is,” Mr. Brundige said. Routine maintenance has fallen behind, he said, in the years since there has been an approved layout plan.
    Mr. Stanzione said he had hoped to submit an application for federal money for deer fencing at the airport before the federal fiscal year closes at the end of this month, but had run up against time limitations.
    That project would include some sections of fence “to tighten up the airport for security purposes,” Mr. Brundige said. The Transportation Security Administration has recently become “very concerned about small airports,” he noted.
    “This is a historical moment in modern town history,” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said last week in a release. “While the F.A.A. approval of our A.L.P. is a milestone achievement, it is part of a more comprehensive approach to managing the airport as a business and community asset, and to creatively and practically mitigating impacts of aviation activity, efforts Councilman Stanzione has diligently pursued.”
    “This fulfills a campaign promise,” he wrote, “to get our airport into a more safe and secure position within professional aviation and, just as important, to be a better neighbor.”
    “I’m happy it’s been done, because you can’t do anything here without having a valid A.L.P.,” Mr. Brundige said on Tuesday. Even minor projects, such as upgrading the airport’s automated weather observation system, cannot proceed without F.A.A. approval, and the agency will not entertain any projects without a valid layout plan in place.
    “It’s vital, and it’s also mandated by law,” said Mr. Brundige.


The notion that a seasonal control tower at East Hampton Airport will significantly reduce helicopter noise affects on surrounding residents is just not correct. While all aircraft including helicopters will be required to establish radio communications with the tower upon entering the 5-mile ring, tower personnel will not be providing separation services to VFR aircraft and cannot direct VFR aircraft to use one approach route over another. Tower personnel, therefore, will not be able to prohibit helicopters from approaching the airport from the north over Peconic Bay or direct helicopters to use a southern route. A seasonal control tower is not the answer for reducing helicopter noise in and around the airport or on the North Fork. Instead, the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, the northeast’s leading helicopter trade organization, strongly supports returning to the helicopter approach and departure routes that were in effect at East Hampton Airport prior to 2008; before Senator Schumer urged all helicopters to use the North Shore Route and the airport modified its voluntary noise abatement procedures. Let's work together to develop fair and equitable solutions. Robert Grotell Special Advisor, ERHC