Town Doubles Airport Fuel Fee

A per-gallon fee added to the cost of aviation fuel at East Hampton Airport will be doubled, to 30 cents per gallon, beginning Tuesday. An East Hampton Town Board majority agreed to increase what is known as the “flowage” fee at its meeting last Thursday despite repeated pleas from Cindy Herbst of Sound Aviation Services, one of two businesses that sell fuel at the airport. The fee had remained static for 22 years. 

Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell cast the sole vote against raising the fee. Though he called an increase “justified,” based on the number of years since it was increased, he said it was unfair to enact a 100-percent hike all at once.

Sound Aviation assists in running the town-owned fuel farm at the airport and sells most of the fuel sold there. Ms. Herbst appeared at Town Hall with a number of its employees, and she introduced them all to the board. She said doubling the fee would have such a severe negative effect that the business could be forced to lay off employees or close.

The town board has been reviewing sources of airport revenue following a citizens committee report that concluded the facility could be self-sustaining and that the town could make needed repairs without Federal Aviation Administration money. Accepting federal funds ties the town to agreements, or “grant assurances” with the F.A.A., which, it is believed, could make it more difficult to enact local restrictions designed to minimize noise.

 “The initiative is really about increasing revenue and trying to get our airport in order,” Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said during the meeting. “We believe that we can move forward on repairs without F.A.A. funding and being beholden to F.A.A. rules.” He went on to say the town “has a responsibility to provide the fuel farm with up-to-date equipment . . . and we need to be able to fund that. Again, this is really about revenue, and trying to make the airport safe.”

Ms. Herbst said the business could not absorb the increased fees, and that if the cost were passed on to customers, they would go elsewhere to buy fuel. She asserted that the committee’s finance report was based on faulty information.

“Reconsider your increase to a manageable one,” she pleaded, asking in addition that the increase be phased in to give the business time to plan for it. She asked the board to “consider each of the people whose jobs you could be impacting tonight.” Maureen Quigley, a longtime employee, told board members they were “jeopardizing our jobs and our stability.” Ms. Quigley detailed how Sound employees are often involved in ordering fuel, performing required tests upon its delivery, and doing other administrative tasks for the fuel farm when town employees are not available.

Other speakers also spoke on behalf of Sound Aviation, calling it a mainstay of the airport and saying they would buy fuel elsewhere, where it is cheaper, should the cost rise here. Gregory Gordon told the board the increase was “not going to make you money, long term,” and even said it would “eventually bankrupt the airport, which may be the goal; I’m not sure.” He was applauded when he said, “I think you’re making a big mistake in passing the law.”

Kathleen Cunningham, who heads the Quiet Skies Coalition, an East Hampton group fighting for noise reduction, said that while she appreciated Sound Aviation’s concerns, it was “really important for the town to properly manage that airport.” Aviators concerned about Sound Aviation could “buy local,” she said, paying a bit more for fuel in order to support the business.

On the other hand, in a recent letter to the town board, Jeffrey Smith, vice president of operations at the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, not only criticized the town board for the direction it is taking on the airport but questioned the conclusions of the committee about the airport’s economics. In following the committee’s recommendations, he said the board “is heading toward restrictions and/or bans of helicopters, seaplanes, and jets.” That, Mr. Smith charged, will “eventually end in ruin” for the airport and could result in fewer visitors to the area if their ability to avoid traffic on the roads be curtailed.

“Did the committee actually conclude that eliminating the right of travel, the choking of small businesses, and the elimination of jobs would come without opposition?” he wrote. He added that legal fees, such as those already incurred from the town’s aviation consultant, Peter Kirsch, were not factored in to the equation.

Mr. Smith went further in a recent article on the National Business Aviation Association website. According to the article, the helicopter council “is among the aviation organizations fighting to maintain access to New York’s East Hampton Airport . . . even in the face of adverse court rulings and ongoing pressure from local residents who complain about noise from helicopters, jets, and seaplanes.”

“They’ve already increased landing fees 20 percent for jets and helicopters,” said Mr. Smith in the article. “The numbers don’t add up. They’re trying to limit or eliminate helicopters and jets, but more than 50 percent of their revenue comes from those aircraft. They’re trying to kill the airport.”

The helicopter council has also expressed concern about the effect on helicopter operators in terms of time and cost of a route change advocated by Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop. This week, the Federal Aviation Administration extended for two years a mandate that helicopters follow a route over water, one mile off Long Island’s north shore between waypoints in Huntington and Riverhead, which was due to expire in August.

Mr. Bishop and Mr. Schumer had urged the F.A.A. not only to extend the rule but to add a requirement that eastbound helicopters fly past Shelter Island and Orient Point before turning toward South Fork airports. In a press release, they said they would continue to press for that modification, in order to address continuing noise “when helicopters cross land on the North Fork in order to land at South Fork airports.” That change would likely send helicopters over areas of East Hampton not severely affected by aircraft noise previously. Senator Schumer said in the release that “the route should be extended so that helicopters fly almost entirely over the water from Manhattan to eastern Long Island.” The representatives also pledged to continue an effort to establish another mandated helicopter route along the south shore.