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Activists Call for End to Noise and Air Pollution from Helicopter Tourism

The Downtown Manhattan Heliport in Lower Manhattan.

The helicopter crash that killed all five of its passengers earlier this month was followed by a call to ban helicopter tourism by both residents and elected officials. But there’s one group that’s been calling for a ban for years. Not just because helicopters are dangerous, but because the flights effect New Yorker’s quality of life.

Adrian Benepe lives on the Upper West Side, and the helicopters flying over the Hudson drive him crazy.

“There’s a constant assault of noise from early in the morning to sunset,” said Benepe. “Six days a week. Hundreds of days a year.”

Benepe is a former New York City Parks Commissioner. He’s currently working with Stop the Chop, a community group that’s trying to ban all helicopter tourism in New York and New Jersey. Their argument? Helicopters are air polluters. And they’re disturbing the few places you can find peace and quiet in the city.  

“It used to be that you could go out on the piers and Hudson River Park and get out to the end of an 800-foot pier and get away from the noise of the city,” he says. “Now you leave the noise of the West Side Highway behind you and you run right into the helicopter highway.”

That heli-highway runs up and down the Hudson river. That’s because tourist helicopters aren’t allowed to fly over the city or the East River. And all of the flights take-off and land at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport next to the Staten Island Ferry. That’s where the sound is most concentrated — and it’s pretty loud down there.

“The noise pollution is a really significant problem,” says Holger Eisl, a professor at Queens College studying air quality in New York City. “No question about that.”

Eisl says that constant noise from choppers can lead to a variety of problems. Everything from a higher blood pressure to delayed development in children. Eisl is also concerned about health effects from exposure to helicopter exhaust. He says it’s like living close to a busy highway — which can lead to a variety of health problems.

“Certain types of cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases,” he says. “People who have asthma symptoms, you’ll have increased levels of asthma attacks.”

Sam Goldstein is the deputy director of the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council. He says the flights are a big part of the city’s tourism industry.

“People come to New York and they want this as an experience,” Goldstein says. “They’re going to businesses. They’re riding the subways. They’re putting money into the tax revenue stream.”

He says stopping the flights is misguided because people aren’t calling to complain about the tours — they’re calling about NYPD or news choppers.

“What people are hearing when they complain about helicopters in the sky are almost exclusively not helicopter tours,” Goldstein says.

The NYPD and news choppers are allowed to hover overhead. And according to 311 data, most people are calling to complain about helicopter noise when the tourist flights aren’t supposed to be in the sky. Other limitations were put on heli-tours when an agreement was struck with the operators to reduce the number of flights by half. That was two years ago — and in order to make sure the companies complied, they were required to provide the city with monthly reports on the number of flights conducted. But Adrian Benepe, the former New York City Parks Commissioner, isn’t convinced the companies are following through.

“There’s no one minding this,” Benepe says. “There’s no one keeping an eye on how many flights. It’s completely on the honor system.”

Recently, the Community Board that represents the area around the heliport asked for those monthly reports — but they haven’t heard from the agencies that have them, both the City Council and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Uptown Radio also asked for the documents but did not hear back, either. On April 19th, that same Community Board will hold a forum where the public and helicopter operators will have a chance to give their perspectives. The community board said in an email, “that’s a start.”


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