The Helicopter Problem

Two years ago, an agreement between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the helicopter tourism industry banned all Sunday flights from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 (above), and that is being honored. But the deal was also supposed to cut the overall number of flights by 50 percent and stop all helicopters from going over Governors Island and Staten Island.

At Monday night’s Community Board 1 Land Use Committee meeting, however, Merritt Birnbaum of the Friends of Governors Island said that helicopters continue to plague the island. “There has been no discernible reduction in helicopter flights and noise Mondays through Saturdays,” replied Birnbaum when I emailed to follow up. “While the tourist flights appear to stick to their proscribed flight plan, that path includes several loops around Governors Island and so the impact of not flying directly over the island is negligible.”

In other words, the agreement isn’t making much of a difference. Here are its main points:

• The heliport concessionaire will prohibit all tourist flight operations from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport on Sundays beginning on April 1, 2016.

• The heliport concessionaire will reduce the total allowable number of tourist flight operations from 2015 levels by 20 percent beginning June 1, 2016; by 40 percent beginning October 1, 2016; and ultimately reaching a 50 percent reduction by the beginning of 2017.  Flights in excess of these thresholds will trigger further reductions in tour flight levels.

• Starting in July 2016, the operators will provide a monthly written report to NYCEDC and the New York City Council detailing the number of tourist flight operations conducted out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport as compared to these agreed upon levels.  The report will also include information on any tour helicopter flights that fly over land and stray from agreed upon routes over water.  A third-party firm will be made available to verify these reports periodically.

• The heliport concessionaire has reaffirmed its commitment to prohibiting operators from flying over Governors Island while conducting tourist flight operations. Flights over Governors Island will subject the concessionaire to further reductions in allowable tour flight levels.

• Although tourist flight operations do not pass over Staten Island, helicopters traveling to and from their home bases outside New York City sometimes do. Effective immediately, the concessionaire will require any such flights over Staten Island to ensure maximum altitude, working in coordination with the air control towers at Newark and LaGuardia airports.

• The heliport concessionaire will establish a system to monitor air quality in the vicinity of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport and report monthly on readings to NYCEDC and the New York City Council.

• The heliport concessionaire will make best efforts to curtail idling by tour helicopters at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport during the periods between flights.

• The heliport concessionaire will actively research available technologies to further mitigate helicopter noise, reduce emissions, and promote fuel efficiency, and to implement any such technology as it becomes commercially feasible.

So where are the monthly tracking reports? Who’s the third-party monitor and what has it observed? What’s the air-quality situation? (Bad. Walk over and smell for yourself.) How’s that “active research” on new technologies going? But the biggest question is this: Why bother building out Governors Island only to let helicopters spoil the experience six days a week? A partial answer, from the New York Times in January, 2016: “Liberty [Helicopters] spent $120,000 lobbying the mayor’s office and the Economic Development Corporation last year [alone], and the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., spent $85,000 on lobbying.” (And let’s not use the excuse of jobs. According to that Times article, the tourism helicopter industry employed 219 people as of 2016.)

The concession agreement with Saker Aviation Services, which operates the Pier 6 heliport, ends in just over three years, on April 30, 2021. Given how much the New York City waterfront has changed over the years—how residential it has become, and how much parkland has been created (in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Governors Island)—an outright ban on tourist helicopters is well past due.

CC: Gale Brewer, Scott Stringer, Jerrold Nadler, Deborah Glick, Brian Kavanagh, Yuh-Line Niou, Linda Rosenthal, Jo Anne Simon, Brad Hoylman, Margaret Chin, Carlos Menacha, Nydia Velázquez, Stephen Levin, Brad Lander.



  1. Helicopter still fly over S.I. every day at varying altitudes. We don’t even notice them anymore. Flying helicopters at the maximum allowable altitude is not always the safest option when flights into LGA are circling over SI at around 3000 feet.

  2. I do not know why anyone would expect rigorous enforcement here:

    “The emails, obtained through a records request, show [James] Capalino’s stable of lobbyists was so entrenched in the minutiae of [NYC Mayor] de Blasio’s first term, they formed an unofficial, additional layer of government — sometimes instructing staffers how to do their jobs — all while advancing the interests of their paying clients. […]

    “Capalino himself was not afraid to personally instruct City Hall staff to arrange meetings with the mayor and his deputies.

    “On May 21, 2015 he texted the mayor’s cell phone to raise concerns on behalf of the tourism industry his firm represented.

    “‘Dear Mayor, my firms [sic] represents the helicopter tour companies. We have been working with NYCEDC for six months to find an equitable solution to the issues raised by their flight operations,’ he wrote, referring to the Economic Development Corporation.

    “‘This week, NYCEDC informed us of significant cuts to the company’s flight operations which I’m told come at your direction. I would appreciate a brief phone conversation with you before our meeting with NYCEDC next Wednesday. Thank you, sir. James Capalino,’ he added.

    “Several hours later, Capalino forwarded the text to a City Hall aide, asking for him to arrange a call with the mayor.

    “Five days later, he followed up with a different aide, and on May 28, the mayor emailed Capalino to set up the call.

    “By early 2016, the industry and EDC had agreed to a compromise that saved the industry from a ban proposed by City Council legislation. Instead, the city agreed to keep the industry in business while reducing the number of flights.”

  3. When this was being discussed the first time around someone said most of the jobs are in New Jersey, not New York. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the jobs. How many are full-time, and how many of those are filled by NYC residents? Maybe the guys handing out the flyers on the street and a few office/ticketseller people live here, and they’re including the staff that works at wherever in NJ the helicopters are garaged (hangared?) and serviced.

    • Here is the most optimstic number of jobs “at the heliport.”

      Franchise and Concession Review Committe Public Hearing
      July 11, 2016

      “MR. TOLBERT: Good afternoon. My name is Brian Tolbert and I am the manager of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. I have been managing heliports in New York City for over 30 years, having come into the industry after serving my country in the United States Navy; however, as the manager of the heliport, I also want to recommend the FCRC that there are a number of people who make their living in this industry. Employment at the heliport exceeds 250 people with a large percentage being minorities or women and many military personnel like myself.”

      With respect to mix, per, the largest of the 5 tourism operators at this heliport employed 25 pilots in 2011, so one can infer that a large portion, perhaps 25-30%, of those “250 jobs” includes pilots. I would bet another large portion is the maintenance and hangar crews all based in New Jersey.

    • Another data point indicating the small size of the helicopter tourism employment of New Yorkers, in comparison to the large nuisance impact on the population.

      Here is a helicopter industry promotional report hosted on a city councilperson’s website. It says:

      “Based on data provided by one of the largest air tour operators, we estimate that the helicopter sightseeing industry directly employs approximately 70 people in New York City. […]

      “As of the end of 2010, the three Manhattan heliports collectively employed 53 people directly, including 50 who worked full time and 3 part-time employees. More than three-fourths of the employees at the three heliports are racial and ethnic minorities. Together, the three operators paid a total of approximately $2.475 million in salaries and wages in 2010 — an average of more than $48,000 per full-time or full-time-equivalent job.

      “Of these 53 employees (as shown below in Figure 5), 31 full-time and 3 part-time employees were residents of New York City — 10 full-time workers lived elsewhere in New York State— and 9 lived outside New York State. More than half of the city’s heliport employees work at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, where the operator provides all full time employees with health care benefits and access to pension programs.”

  4. I for one thing the helicopters are fantastic and an asset to a city with the attributes of NYC. I have used the helicopters for both sightseeing as well as commuting.

    What better way to see a city, with the size and scale of NYC!

    It is also an incredibly efficient way to get to the airports, and at a reasonable price. For a while Delta offered a connection from downtown to JFK. You checked in and went through security at the helipad. It was not crowded, and very fast. You would land on the tarmac, having already done all the security and luggage handling. With a flight time of less than 10 minutes. Beats an unpredictable one hour plus.

    The helicopters are also a great way to take longer trips, that are easily accessible by helicopters, and dramatically reduce travel times.

    There is also a certain magic, or romance to the helipads and helicopters. Whether it be running or cycling past one of the three helipads. It is one of the sites and sounds unique to NYC.

    There will always be noise in the city, that part of city life. There are always quieter places to live if that is your motivation.
    I for one wish there where more helicopter options. Especially to the airports.

    • Very romantic & magical for the tenants that live in Building right across and were told by the leasing manager that they are NOT required to disclose the presence of heliport!
      Heavy & ongoing sinus infections from the (up to 4 at a time) helicopters that land take off 5 days a week from 8 AM – 8 PM. Headaches, eczema, nausea & Sinus infections are only a few of the “romantic & magical” side effects, caused by the constant noise, kerosene fumes and settling ( thick black) pollution dust the 100’s a day helicopters.

      Does anybody know if it is really legal for the leasing Mgr/LL to withhold that information from a tenant before they sign the lease? Breaking the lease will cost me 2 month worth of “buy out fee”.

  5. Build out the pier and put a middle school on it. That will create a few jobs and help our school shortage downtown.

  6. People are bound and determined to take away everything that provides the city with the $$ and the reason for being the top city for business in the world. First you tell Amazon to take a hike, now just perfect get rid of the heliport, that’s a sound plan. The one complaining of the sinus issues, well, you live in a congested city, what you breathe in every day is worse than smoking a pack a day. Seriously, you should go live in the country where no one can bother you, you live in a metropolis deal with it or move to the country.