LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
The San Fernando Valley within Los Angeles is bombarded with noise from low-flying helicopters. Then-Congressman Howard Berman and four other Los Angeles county officials sent a letter to the US Department of Transportation, stating, “We have shared our frustration about this problem with our friends, neighbors, and local elected officials. Now the FAA must hear our voices and implement changes that place the well-being of valley residents before the interests of a few helicopter operators. We are long overdue to find a common-sense solution to this constant problem.
In 2011, Congressman Berman introduced the Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act, designed to “address the growing safety and noise concerns among Valley residents caused by low-flying helicopters.” The legislation would require the FAA to establish guidelines on helicopter operations in Los Angeles County. Any new regulations would not apply to police, fire, military, or other emergency helicopter flights.
In August 2012, Berman arranged for the FAA to hold a public hearing on the problem of low-flying helicopter noise. More than 150 people attended, from the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood Hills, Brentwood, Torrance, and west Los Angeles. These areas are inundated by low-flying helicopters carrying the media, tourists, and celebrity photographers.
At the hearing, many Los Angeles residents stated that voluntary efforts by helicopter pilots to not disturb homeowners were not effective, and that the FAA needed to take strong action.
Bob Anderson, a board member of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, stated, “We need enforceable, legal restrictions right now.”
In response to this constant noise, the FAA, sadly, released a report stating that it is opposed to new rules that would restrict helicopter usage in Los Angeles. Instead, the FAA supports “voluntary efforts.”
Representative Adam Schiff, who represents the Pasadena area, stated, “The FAA has determined that significant progress has been made in reducing helicopter noise in Los Angeles. I only wish that were the case. The FAA’s conclusion that residents have already achieved meaningful relief represents the triumph of hope over experience.” One major problem with the voluntary regulations: they exempt police aircraft, which are a major source of helicopter noise.
The FAA’s failure to address the issue of helicopter noise is an outrage. The people of Los Angeles need relief. There is absolutely no reason to believe that “voluntary” efforts are going to reduce noise levels. No one in Los Angeles “volunteered” to be subjected to constant noise from low-flying helicopters. This noise is extremely irritating and disruptive. The FAA and other federal agencies should be protecting the public interest, not corporate interests.
Helicopter noise is also a major issue on the South Side of Chicago. The Chicago Helicopter Express is a $12.5 million helipad located in the Pilsen neighborhood. The facility includes helicopter and departure taxi dock, and an observation deck. The company’s helicopters fly at 1,300 feet and mostly follow flight paths toward Lake Michigan along the nearby expressways. The facility serves as a launching pad for chartered flights and aerial tours. In reality, the heliport is a sonic assault on the Pilsen neighborhood—which already experiences excessive noise.
The Chicago city council also approved a “vertiport” helicopter facility on a vacant ten-acre lot near Wood Street and 15th street, close to Stroger Hospital. The Pilsen neighborhood is now surrounded by helicopter noise.
NEW YORK CITY/ NEW JERSEY
New York City has been harmed by loud, low-flying helicopters for over 20 years and the problem has been increasing despite mounting public and political pressure to end it. The Federal Aviation Administration reported in 2004 that New York City uses more helicopter services than any other city in the world with 150,000 takeoffs and landings at New York City heliports annually. The main culprits of daily helicopter noise are tourists/sightseeing and commuters/charters (nonessential helicopters), even though news stations, the NYPD, and government officials also utilize helicopters over New York City. Most of the current 311 helicopter noise complaints are from New Yorkers complaining about the nonessential flights. Stop the Chop NY/NJ – a nonprofit grassroots community organization formed in 2014 – aims to ban the nonessential helicopters over NYC and close the local heliports to nonessential helicopter traffic. Their petition has generated thousands of signatures so far.
Manhattan is home to three heliports: the Downtown Manhattan Heliport (DMH) at the South Street Seaport, West 30th Street, and East 34 Street. There had been a fourth heliport located at East 60th Street, but that was closed by then-Mayor Giuliani in the late 1990s due to community pressure. The current three heliports, although operating under different rules, all contribute to the extreme helicopter noise conditions for New Yorkers and visitors near the heliports, as well as those under the helicopter flight paths.
Commuter and charter helicopter flights have dramatically increased since companies like Blade (flying out of West 30th Street and East 34th Street heliports) and Fly Lindy (flying out of the DMH) have started helicopter commuting to the airports, the Hamptons, other vacation/weekend locations, Baltimore, and the District of Columbia. The commuter and charter helicopter companies have marketed themselves as daily alternatives to public transportation, personal cars, and taxis.
Additionally, NYC-based tourist helicopters also operate at the DMH (located next to the South Street Seaport); 30,000 annual flights are allowed to take off and land from there. A 2016 Agreement between Mayor DeBlasio’s administration and the helicopter industry placed a cap of 30,000 flights per year, no flights over land, and no Sunday flights (note that this “compromise agreement” resulted after activism by Stop the Chop NY/NJ and local bills to ban the tourist helicopters were introduced in the NYC City Council in 2015). This did temporarily reduce some helicopter noise.
Unfortunately however, the DMH-based helicopters that tour the NYC Harbor and along the surrounding NYC rivers still create much noise pollution to the detriment of people in Battery Park, the South Street Seaport, Governors Island, Brooklyn Heights, and West Siders and East Siders near the Hudson and East Rivers, respectively.
Additionally, an unfortunate negative consequence of the New York City 2016 Agreement was that tourism helicopter companies began operating outside of New York City. These tourism helicopters fly over NYC, departing from New Jersey and Westchester, thereby avoiding the restrictions placed on the tours emanating from the DMH. As a result, there are currently no restrictions on how many tourist helicopters fly over New Jersey. Westchester and New York City neighborhoods at low altitudes during the day and night.
The irony is that the only restriction placed on helicopters in the New York metropolitan area is flying lower than 2,000 feet in order to avoid the numerous jets and other airplanes that also fly in this geographic area due to three main international airports being located here as well. Tourist helicopter flights departing from New Jersey’s Kearny Heliport include, but are not limited to, the doors off “shoe-selfie” tours offered by the FLYNYON company. This company, sadly, gained notoriety in 2018 when one of its tour helicopters started losing power over Central Park and crash landed into the East River, killing five tourists who were strapped into their seats and drowned before they could extricate themselves from the helicopter.
Following the accident, the National Transportation and Safety Bureau urged the Federal Aviation Administration to close the doors on tourist helicopter flights and prohibit photography from non-work related flights. Other helicopter tourist companies use Kearny’s Heliport as well as heliports based in Linden, New Jersey and Westchester County Airport.
For a full list of serious and deadly helicopter crashes in the NYC area, see Stop the Chop NY/NJ’s safety and terrorism webpage. In 2003, Disney Land and World received a federal no-fly zone after the September 11, 2001 terrorism attacks by plane hijacking. New York City was one of the actual targets of the 9/11 terrorists– and yet NYC does not have the same protections as vacation spots fortunately never attacked. NYC deserves no less than these same Disney property protections!
These incessant helicopter flights have raised outcries from numerous New York and New Jersey neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Weehawken, Hoboken, and Jersey City, as well as other municipalities in Westchester and Long Island. The noise is disrupting the lives of millions of people throughout New York and New Jersey. Park areas that should be peaceful urban respites from noise, such as Central Park, Riverside Park, Hudson River Park, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, New Jersey Liberty State Park, and Governors Island, are now helicopter highways.
A damning 1999 report by the Natural Resources Council about sightseeing helicopter tours over New York City states that helicopter noise can lead to sleep-deprivation and can cause cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems, as well as reduced learning abilities among children. Alarmingly, the volume of helicopter traffic is much higher today. The noise measurements in the NRDC report demonstrate that helicopters are even louder than jet airplanes. An article on the science behind helicopter noise explains how the blade slap–blade vortex interaction from airflow through spinning helicopter rotor blades–is the loudest and most annoying noise for observers. These impulsive vibrations make listeners perceive helicopters to be almost twice as loud as they are in reality. Low frequency vibrations from blade slap are also felt, making them all the more disturbing. Voluntary agreements between communities and helicopter companies to alleviate these uniquely harmful noises are rarely respected, according to the FAA. NASA reports that technological improvements to reduce helicopter noise are also rarely implemented by commercial helicopter operators.
The Federal Aviation Administration has not taken any meaningful steps to reduce helicopter noise, traffic nor pollution. Stop the Chop NY/NJ and its thousands of members have been organizing (as volunteers) throughout the region for real change, and support the following bills introduced at the local and federal levels of government.
In 2019, New York Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velazquez first introduced the federal bill Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019 (H.R. 4880) which was reintroduced in 2021 (H.R. 1643). The bill would prohibit non-essential helicopters from flying in covered airspace of any city with a population of over 8 million people and with a population density of over 25,000 people per square mile. Essential helicopter flights for law enforcement, emergency response, disasters, and medical services are excluded from the regulations. The bill directs the FAA to update helicopter flight charts to show airspace designated as “covered” under this bill. (The FAA has ignored requests for regulations, policies, or procedures to account for New York City’s uniquely crowded airspace).
In January 2021, Representative Nadler introduced H.R. 389, the Safe and Quiet Skies Act, which directs the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations to “reduce the community disruption of commercial air tours.” This bill would (1) require that tour flights fly above the 1,500 foot altitude over actual ground; (2) require flights over residential, commercial and recreational areas meet noise requirements of 55 dbA’s or less; (3) prohibit tour flights over national sites, including national cemeteries and national parks; (4) grants power to states and local municipalities to further regulate tour flights; and more. See the Nadler Press Release for more bill provisions.
On May 15, 2022, Representatives Nadler, Maloney, and Velazquez introduced H.R 7769, the Helicopter Safety and Noise Management Act to establish a “commission” to develop a helicopter usage management plan for NYC. The commission would include the FAA, elected officials, and members “who are helicopter noise and safety advocates” that reside in the covered airspace and are harmed by non-essential helicopter flights.”
The Helicopter Usage Management Plan in this bill would create (1) the prohibition of nonessential civil rotorcraft in covered airspaces without a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration; (2) the establishment of a system that sustainably reduces the number of nonessential civil rotorcraft in covered airspace at any given time; and (3) the establishment of a competitive bidding program for nonessential civil rotorcraft to operate in such an airspace.
New York State Senate and Assembly Bills 7493 and 8473 (awaiting New York Governor Kathy Huchol’s signature) create a right for a person and the NY Attorney General to sue sightseeing helicopter operators from non-NYC heliports that interfere with their use and enjoyment of private property and public parkland due to rotorcrafts that create “an unreasonable amount of noise at ground level.”
In 2020, then-New York City Council Member Paul A. Vallone introduced bill Int 2026-2020–a local law that would prohibit take off and landings of chartered helicopters at city-owned heliports if these helicopters do not meet stage three noise levels (The FAA ranks civil aircraft noise levels from stage one, the loudest, to stage four, the quietest.)
In 2022, NYC Council Member Gale Brewer introduced bill Int 0226-2022, a local law that would “prohibit sightseeing helicopters from taking off and landing at heliports owned by the city if those helicopters do not meet the stage one, two, and three noise limits for helicopters as determined by the Federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990” (“ANCA”).
In addition to New York State and New York City legislation, New Jersey state bills have also been introduced to reduce nonessential helicopter flights in effort to improve public health for its citizens. For example, Senate Bill 479 and Assembly Bill 5514 prohibit all tourist helicopter operations in New Jersey, and Senate Bill 478 and Assembly Bill 5515 significantly reduce the number of helicopter operations at certain aviation facilities licensed by the state. These bills are supported by the Council of the City of Hoboken and the Hudson County Board of Commissioners, respectively.
In conclusion, the helicopter situation described above is absurd, harmful, and unnecessary. Residents and visitors are assaulted by constant noise (and fossil fuel-based air pollution, including from helicopters that still used leaded fuel)–all in the name of corporate profits that ignore the environmental, safety, quality of life, and health costs. The local governments in New York and New Jersey, as well as federal officials must commit to reducing helicopter noise, protecting health and quality of life by banning non-essential helicopters over the NYC metropolitan area, and closing the heliports to commuter and tourist helicopters.