Helicopters May Pay More

    Landing fees at East Hampton Airport could rise this year by more than 100 percent for some types of helicopters, according to a proposal discussed Tuesday by the East Hampton Town Board.
    The fees, said Jim Brundige, the airport manager, have not been increased since 2008, but the airport has had “a clearly steady increase” in expenses.
    Mr. Brundige told the board he structured the fees so that, with the traffic expected based on last year’s, they would rise enough to cover operating expenses this year.
    Though the airport had been accumulating surplus revenue since 2006, reaching $200,000 to $300,000, he said that last year operating expenses exceeded income, and some of the surplus funds were used to cover the shortfall. That, he said, was a result of a spike in fees related to the installation of the control tower, and to legal fees stemming from an Article 78 lawsuit against the airport.
    In addition to landing fees, the airport fund gets money from leases on hangars, which are generally long-term and subject to contracts, and from advertising at the terminal, as well as from a town fee on fuel sold at the airport. At 15 cents a gallon, Mr. Brundige said, those fees are already three times the industry standard. They have brought in about $700,000 a year.
    Hangar leases brought in over $411,000 last year. Income to the town from advertisers, who are secured by Luxury Media Partners, which under its contract gets half the advertising dollars, totaled $47,500 last year and $43,000 in 2011, Mr. Brundige said.
    Some revenue from landing fees has been forfeited in the past, he said, “mainly because it was difficult to track down the owners of the aircraft. “ Seventy-five to 80 percent of the planes were identified. 
    With the airport unstaffed at some times of day, aircraft could conceivably land or take off, bypassing landing fees. “I mean, you have to be a detective,” Mr. Brundige said.
    However, he said, that situation has improved since the town hired Vector Airport Solutions, which provides land fee billing and collection services.
    “Is the budgetary goal to break even?” asked Councilman Peter  Van Scoyoc. Covering annual operating expenses does not include raising money for capital expenses, such as runway repair — items for which the town has, in past years, accepted Federal Aviation Administration grants.
    “That’s what the [federal] airport improvement fund is for,” Mr. Brundige said.
    Whether to continue to accept those grants, which come with conditions that limit the town’s authority to restrict access to the airport — the only way, some say, to effectively reduce airport-related noise — has been a matter of some debate, as has whether the airport could be fully self-sustaining or if, without federal money, town taxpayers would have to shoulder the airport’s capital expenses, which could reach into the millions.
    “I don’t see a problem with exceeding our budgetary requirements,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.
    “We were maintaining a fiscally sustainable budget until last year,” Mr. Brundige said. In fact, said Councilman Dominick Stanzione, Mr. Brundige has managed the airport budget well during his tenure, resulting in the accumulated surpluses.
    F.A.A. guidelines, Mr. Brundige said, say that landing or other airport fees cannot be “discriminatory,” ensuring that general aviation airports are available to flyers, but that airport operators are allowed to set fees so as to “maintain airport revenue in a way as to be self-sustaining.”
     “East Hampton Airport is the most expensive airport on the East Coast, including J.F.K.,” Mr. Brundige said, “so we really have got to be careful, because you’re treading on potential lawsuits.”
    The Downtown Manhattan Heliport, Mr. Brundige said, charges $255 for a particular type of helicopter to land, versus the $215 he has suggested as a new landing fee here, up from $100.
    Since the heliport is where many copters begin a flight to East Hampton, Mr. Van Scoyoc suggested that the town’s fee match the New York City facility’s. Councilwoman Sylvia Overby suggested a seasonal fee scale, with higher fees in the summertime, when the airport has a greater impact on residents.
    Board members and Mr. Brundige agreed to discuss the landing fees further. Meanwhile, the board will proceed with changing the town code, which now includes a schedule of specific landing fees, to allow the board to set fees and amend them from time to time with a simple resolution. A hearing will be scheduled on that change to the code.