Debate Flies Over Chopper Tours
NEW YORK - The fatal midair collision that sent a helicopter and small plane plunging into the Hudson River has intensified a long-running fight over whether tourists should be able to gawk at the city's famous skyline from the air.
Last year, about 300,000 people took sightseeing helicopter flights, according to the city's Economic Development Corporation. Five companies offer helicopter tours of Manhattan, trips from six to 25 minutes at prices from $135 to $1,010. Passengers are promised views of the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and the site of the World Trade Center.
The crash, which killed nine people Saturday, has prompted calls from elected officials, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to ban low-altitude flights over Manhattan and the Hudson River. Yet the most persistent complaints about helicopters over New York have been the noise and fumes they emit, not safety.
Sightseeing flights have continued unabated since the crash. "I think I'm not afraid because it happens very rarely," a French tourist, David Bernard, told the Associated Press.
Some of the New Yorkers the choppers fly over say tourists who visit the city that never sleeps shouldn't make so much noise.
"While tourists may get a thrill, and while there are people who work in this (air tour) industry, there are infinitely more people . . . harmed by the impact of these tours, which are relentless in their frequency, in their noise, in their capacity to interrupt every facet of life," says Joy Held, head of the Helicopter Noise Coalition.
The city sky is also crisscrossed by helicopters from police, TV stations, corporate charter services and weekend flights to the beaches of the Hamptons, where many well-off city residents summer. (Ticket price: $799 one way.)
The Liberty Tours helicopter involved in the fatal crash could not have taken off from Manhattan if city officials had implemented a 1999 master plan to eliminate air tourism.
Sightseeing helicopters once flew from four locations in Manhattan. Ten years ago, under pressure from city residents, the city closed one heliport, kicked air-tour operators out of a second and drew up plans to eliminate sightseeing flights from the two remaining heliports: one on the Hudson River and one near Wall Street at the southern tip of Manhattan.
City Hall is now more chopper-friendly: Mayor Michael Bloomberg is both a helicopter and airplane pilot. It has allowed sightseeing flights to continue from the Wall Street heliport; under the proposed master plan, they were supposed to end last year.
Sightseeing flights from the Hudson River heliport, where the doomed chopper departed, will end in April. That heliport, located in Hudson River Park, was supposed to close in 2001, but the city-state agency overseeing the park has continued to lease the heliport to helicopter operators.
In 2007, an advocacy group called Friends of Hudson River Park sued the park agency to stop the sightseeing flights. "A heliport is just incompatible with a park," says A.J. Pietrantone, executive director of the friends group. "People go to a park as an oasis in an urban environment."
As a result of the lawsuit, sightseeing flights from the west-side heliport were phased out, limited first to 25,000 and then ending next year. The heliport is scheduled to close at the end of 2012, when it is supposed to move to a yet-to-be-chosen site.
The city's Economic Development Corporation says helicopter charters and sightseeing employs nearly 1,400 people and brings in nearly $300 million in annual revenue to the city.
"There's a couple hundred people a day that go on these rides," Bloomberg said Tuesday. "All of these things are things that tourists like, and we need tourists very much."
Held led the fight to end helicopter flights up the east side of Manhattan, which is largely residential. Since 1998, helicopter tours have voluntarily avoided the area.
Now residents on the Hudson River side are counting chopper flights from their rooftops. They say helicopters fly over their neighborhood en route to Central Park, as frequently as 25 flights in 30 minutes.
City Councilwoman Gale Brewer wants sightseeing flights required to stay over the water: "You can literally be sitting in Central Park or Riverside Park on a weekend, (and) you can hardly hear yourself, there are so many helicopters coming by."