For some New Yorkers, the nonstop buzzing of helicopters, not sirens or fireworks or pot-banging, has been the sound of the COVID era, and they’re not happy about it. Between October 2019 and October 2020, chopper noise complaints jumped by 130 percent. During a recent community board meeting on the Upper West Side, a resident complained that “the frequency of these helicopters, seven days a week, is so high I literally cannot get any rest.” But it’s not only an Upper West Side problem, New Yorkers from other neighborhoods, including Brooklyn Heights, have also been increasingly hearing the obnoxious chopper noise above them. A recent 311 data analysis from The City shows that residents of districts along the Brooklyn waterfront were among those making the most complaints.
You might wonder whether that’s because there are more flights lately, or because people are simply cooped up at home and are primed to call and gripe. It’s a question that is almost impossible to answer because, surprisingly, there is no comprehensive data on traffic in city airspace, which is completely unregulated below 1,200 feet. Individual heliports count their flights, but there’s no overarching agency keeping track. “It’s not controlled by any of the towers in New York or La Guardia or JFK,” said Robert Gottheim, district director for Congressman Jerry Nadler, who has been trying to ban certain low-flying helicopters since 2019. “And it sets up very, very heavy, very dense air traffic.” Efforts to gain local control over everything below 1,200 feet have failed over the years. In an effort to reduce noise, the de Blasio administration ruled in 2016 that sightseeing choppers taking off from the city can only fly above the Hudson River — but that law doesn’t apply to tourist choppers coming from New Jersey, and most of them originate there. Those aircraft are allowed to go wherever they want, whenever they want, as long as they stay below that 1,200-foot ceiling. The FAA doesn’t actively monitor those lower levels either.
Having all those helicopters buzzing around unregulated airspace is not only annoying but can be dangerous too: Since 1982, there have been 30 fatal helicopter wrecks in the city, including the chopper that crashed onto a midtown building in 2019, killing its pilot, and the sightseeing helicopter that was owned and operated by Liberty Helicopters (and booked through New Jersey-based FlyNYON) that fell into the East River in 2018, causing five deaths. (And every New Yorker of a certain age remembers the day in 1977 when a helicopter broke up atop the Pan Am Building, throwing its rotor blades and other parts into the streets around Grand Central Terminal.)
There are now also several commuter chopper outfits buzzing around the city, notably the Uber-for-helicopters start-up Blade, which has quickly cornered the market on zipping business executives to and from the Hamptons. According to an analysis by the data company BetaNYC, most helicopters that hovered below 2,500 feet over Manhattan between March and December 2020 were for tourism and private travel. (There was a significant uptick in news-station and NYPD flight time in June, but tourist chopper companies dominated the rest of the year.)
Despite the crashes and mounting noise complaints, the FAA continues to ignore the low airspace, and no city or state regulation has been able to curb helicopter traffic. “We’ve met with everybody we can meet with, we met with the FAA, with the Eastern District Helicopter Association, with the city, with New Jersey,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says. “But I can’t tell New Jersey what to do. Unless there’s a federal law, I don’t know what else to do.” Nadler and a group of New York lawmakers reintroduced the Helicopter Safety Act, a bill authored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney that would enact a federal ban on sightseeing flights and other private choppers from city airspace. (NYPD, medical, and news helicopters would be exempt.)
“Any place you have these tourism helicopters, and this density of flights in the air, is a dangerous situation,” Gottheim says. “The FAA doesn’t want to regulate, so that’s why Congress needs to step in.”