The Unfriendly Skies Above New York City

Copter, copters everywhere. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Uber made a feature called “Copter” available to all of its users in New York City. Now, for a few hundred dollars, anyone with the Uber app can splurge on a quick, relatively glamorous airborne trip to Kennedy airport. Blade has sold comparative chopper transfers for years, but if Uber’s service takes off, New Yorkers can expect the already-buzzy skies — Manhattan heliports alone recorded nearly 50,000 flights in 2018 — to grow ever more crowded.

That unappealing prospect highlights a surprising and disturbing fact: A significant portion of helicopter traffic above the most densely populated urban area in the United States isn’t monitored, and there’s little New York can do about it.

Since 1983, there have been at least 30 helicopter crashes in the city, causing at least 25 fatalities, according to National Transportation Safety Board data. Political outrage over copters’ public-safety risks ebb and flow in a predictable pattern following these dramatic accidents, which, while infrequent, have occurred on a regular basis. Five drowned in the East River following the crash of a Liberty Helicopter flight booked through another company, FlyNYON, in March of 2018, and in June, a lost pilot bound for Linden, New Jersey, was killed when his helicopter crashed into a 51-story office tower in Midtown. The problem goes back even farther: After a grisly 1977 crash atop the Pan Am Building — now MetLife — killed five, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned rooftop helipads.

Aside from the clear and present danger to public safety, helicopters are deafening. Noise complaints to the city’s 311 service pertaining to choppers are on track to reach record levels this year, the Wall Street Journal reported in September. The hovering birds have menaced Shakespeare in the Park, disturbed moments of solace on the Hudson, and made midtown even more cacophonous, creating a soundscape similar to a war zone.

One might imagine that the Federal Aviation Administration is fully in charge of Manhattan’s crowded airspace. But the agency isn’t even aware how many helicopters hover over the city on a daily basis. The FAA doesn’t generally monitor chopper traffic, which operates under Visual Flight Rules (VFR): Unless pilots approach an airport, they’re required to communicate only with other pilots in nearby crafts, and not with air traffic control. This means that depending on where a given pilot is, they may not have to speak with anybody at all. With no one watching, it seems remarkable that accidents aren’t more frequent. But unlike commercial aviation, there is no data on how many narrow misses may have occurred.

Congressman Jerry Nadler, who has represented New York’s Tenth Congressional District since 1992, has sought to take action on helicopters for decades. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Nadler is among the Democrats who will decide on bringing formal impeachment charges against Donald Trump. But even as he is occupied by matters of international import, he hasn’t forgotten about the noisy nuisances plaguing his constituents.

“During the Bloomberg administration, we had a mayor who was a helicopter pilot himself, so we couldn’t get anywhere. [Bloomberg] didn’t want to restrict them at all,” Nadler’s district director Rob Gottheim said. But the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who presented himself as a man of the people, appeared to offer an opportunity to rid Manhattan of copters, or at least to limit their activity.

On Saturday, Nadler, along with Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney and Nydia Velázquez, introduced the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019, which would bar nonessential helicopter traffic over Manhattan. But it’s an uphill battle.

After the fatal accident in June, de Blasio appeared poised to act. “I think we need a full ban on any helicopters going over Manhattan itself … for any kind of civilian traffic, it should not go over Manhattan in any way, shape, or form,” he said, during a June appearance on WNYC’s Ask the Mayor. “[But] remember,” he continued, “a lot of what happens with helicopters is federal jurisdiction, federal oversight.”

Since then, no prohibition of helicopter traffic over Manhattan has materialized.

The mayor is correct that the Feds hold most of the sway here — and they don’t seem interested in cracking down.

The FAA could issue Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) over Manhattan, as it has for the airspace over Disneyland and Disneyworld since 2014, and as it does during major events, such as the United Nations General Assembly.

That wouldn’t in and of itself bar choppers, since certain types of service, including emergency and public safety — along with news-gathering, which is a First Amendment activity — are protected. However, these activities represent a fraction of helicopter traffic, the majority of which comprise either sightseeing or charter service, like Blade and now Uber.

Gottheim believes that the agency’s dual role of promoting and regulating aviation means that “the fox is guarding the henhouse,” and that it is overly concerned about creating a slippery slope for regulation in other parts of the country where helicopter tourism is popular, like in Hawaii and Alaska, and at the Grand Canyon. Messages left for an agency representative were not returned.

Some city action has had an effect. When tours originate from Manhattan heliports, regulations limit operators to designated routes, with some exceptions. And cuts to the number of flights allowed to take off and land recently pushed one rent-a-chopper business into bankruptcy. But there’s a giant loophole: New York’s rules have no impact on New Jersey operators, who operate in a Wild West of regulations. It’s there that the private company FlyNYON, which caters to the most bothersome species of Instagram tourism, is based. Using Flightradar24, one can observe FlyNYON choppers in action — the logo is readily visible on helicopters that loop over Central Park, hover near the Empire State Building, and harass Lower Manhattan. FlyNYON continues to operate “doors off” flights, during which passengers are encouraged to dangle their feet above the city for a #shoeselfie. After the 2018 crash, the FAA briefly banned such flights from operating if they included certain kinds of restraints.

Nadler’s office estimates that FlyNYON operates approximately 70 flights over Manhattan, seven days and nights each week. But since the FAA doesn’t monitor this traffic, and FlyNYON is an indirect carrier that purchases flight time from FAA-licensed carriers, which actually own and operate the helicopters in question, an exact number of flights per day is approximate.

Frosty relations with city lawmakers do not prevent the company from maintaining an office in the West Village. Tours begin on the ground in Manhattan, and customers are subsequently ferried to New Jersey, via Uber, where flights depart from Linden, a non-towered airport.

In a familiar New York story, control of a significant portion of the city’s helicopter industry — two of Manhattan’s three heliports — rests mostly in the hands of a single family. Al Trenk is co-founder, owner, and director of Liberty Helicopters, as well as co-founder and director of Saker Aviation, which operates the Downtown Manhattan heliport. Trenk’s daughter, Abigail, operates the West 30th Street heliport via her company Air Pegasus. Shortly after 9/11, the Times described Al Trenk’s portfolio of companies as a “family business.”

And FlyNYON is run by Patrick Day, Sr., whose father, Patrick Michael Day, is the director of operations at Liberty.

It’s not only that New York City is all but powerless to regulate its own airspace, but that New Yorkers are at the mercy of a niche but powerful industry that isn’t adequately monitored by the federal agency responsible for it. And if the helicopter cabal so chose, it could almost certainly move its operations across state lines to New Jersey, navigating entirely around any city action in the process and continuing business as usual.

All of this leaves de Blasio in a bind. The mayor may believe that if he acts decisively and shutters the two city-owned heliports, he’ll face lawsuits, a general political headache, and the specter of ongoing, unregulated traffic over Manhattan that originates across the Hudson River, a communications nightmare. No one Intelligencer spoke with believes New Jersey will act to prohibit or limit flights. So for now, New York is left with no clear remedy to stop the cycle of accidents, much less the noise. Legislation barring flights is a long shot, and with Uber in the picture, the helicopter lobby may have gained a powerful ally.

Gottheim thinks mayoral action would send a clear message, if nothing else.
“The FAA could [act] tomorrow, but they won’t. [NYC EDC] can cancel the concession agreement they have with the operator and restrict usage because they’re the landlord. Every concession agreement that the city signs has a way out,” he said, referring to the use of city-owned property by private companies for which the city is compensated. “Maybe there’s a penalty [for terminating that agreement], but so be it: We’re talking about safety here.”

Helicopter traffic benefits the few at the expense of the many — a dynamic that Uber’s arrival on the scene is likely to exacerbate. The result is an increasingly familiar narrative of contemporary life in the most densely packed city in the United States.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Patrick Day, Sr. ran Liberty Helicopters. It also incorrectly stated that all doors-off flights over New York had been banned by the FAA in 2018.

The Unfriendly Skies Above New York City