A new bill aims to ban nonessential helicopter traffic over New York City, with lawmakers citing concerns over noise and exhaust as well as safety.
U.S. Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, Jerrold Nadler, and Nydia M. Velazquez announced the “Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019” on Oct. 26. The bill would prohibit “nonessential” helicopters from flying over any U.S. city with a population of over 8 million people and with a population density of over 25,000 people per square mile — a definition apparently tailored to apply only to New York City.
Many private and commercial transportation and sightseeing flights would be banned under the bill, which carves out exceptions for law enforcement, medical, emergency response, and other “essential” flights in the public interest. Helicopters would be permitted to “fly through the shortest, most direct routes possible to access or depart from airports.” Military aircraft would not be affected.
In announcing their proposed helicopter ban, the lawmakers pointed to several recent accidents, including the fatal crash of a private helicopter on a Midtown building in June, the ditching of a Blade-branded helicopter in the Hudson River in May, and a March 2018 accident in which five FlyNYON passengers on a doors-off helicopter photo flight drowned in the East River.
“My colleagues and I have called on the FAA numerous times to impose additional regulations that would make New York City airspace safer, but we have yet to see sufficient measures be taken,” stated Maloney. “The bottom line is, the risks that commuter, charter, and tourism helicopter flights pose to New Yorkers far outweigh the benefit to the very small number of people who use them. There is absolutely no margin for error when you fly over somewhere as densely populated as New York.”
Although safety was identified as the primary impetus for the bill, Nadler and Velazquez also cited “incessant noise pollution” as another reason for banning helicopter flights over the city. Local and state politicians who voiced support for the bill highlighted environmental concerns as well. “In addition [to] the near-constant noise that some communities in the flight path experience, [helicopters] are uber polluters spewing carbon into our environment and they are dangerously unregulated,” stated New York State Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal.
The bill’s prospects are unclear. However, its existence suggests that urban air mobility proponents who are seeking to prove out their concepts with helicopters — including Uber, Blade, and Airbus — will face increasing pushback from communities as their helicopter operations increase.
“The use of helicopters for non-essential travel has proven time and again to pose a serious threat to the safety and quality of life of the residents of New York City,” stated New York City Council Member Mark Levine. “With the rise of app-based flights, this problem will only get worse.”
Council Member Margaret S. Chin specifically called out Uber Copter, stating, “With Uber operating a new service at the heliport to bring premium customers to and from JFK airport, we refuse to stand idly by and allow private companies to treat our skies above our homes, schools, and hospitals in the same way they choke our streets.”
Although Uber, Blade, and Airbus all aim to deploy quieter, cleaner eVTOL aircraft as they become available, those intentions were not acknowledged in the announcement of the Improving Helicopter Safety Act. Lawmakers’ comments also indicate that the increasing use of helicopters for urban air mobility is reinforcing the image of aerial commuting as an option only for the wealthy — in stark contrast to the democratization of aviation that many eVTOL developers hope to achieve.
“The copters promise the wealthy and well connected speedy and stress-free commutes with scenic views, but what about the effects on the rest of us?” Rosenthal emphasized.