June 2014 RiverheadLOCAL file photo: Peter Blasl

The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday extended the expiration date of the New York north shore helicopter route to July 29, 2026.

The rule establishing the route was set to expire Aug. 5.

The FAA adopted the rule extending the route without the 30-day notice or commenting procedures required by federal law. In dispensing with notice and commenting procedures, the agency cited unresolved questions about the future of East Hampton Airport and potential alternative destinations for Hamptons-bound helicopters as its justification for immediate adoption.

The north shore helicopter route requires helicopter traffic to travel east over water along the north shore coast at a minimum altitude of 2,500 feet until the aircraft reach the twin forks, where they are free to transition over land to their destinations — typically East Hampton Airport, used by 70% of Hamptons helicopter traffic.

The north shore helicopter route allows pilots the discretion to operate over land and at lower altitudes for safety reasons, when weather conditions require.

The route was established as a voluntary route in 2008 to alleviate helicopter noise in Nassau and western Suffolk. An FAA rule establishing the final route was adopted in 2012 and extended three times without change, most recently in 2020.

But the route made helicopter noise worse on the North Fork, since it had the effect of “funneling” all NYC-Hamptons helicopter traffic over local skies, according to local residents and officials. Noise from large numbers of southbound helicopters transitioning over the North Fork to reach East Hampton Airport sparked an outcry and opposition to extension of the route among among North Fork residents and elected officials.

Map showing helicopter traffic as aircraft cross the North Fork on their way to East Hampton airport .

The FAA nevertheless extended the route for two years in 2014, four years in 2016 and two years in 2020, with the past two extensions also on an immediate adoption basis, without 30-day notice and comment period.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, who called for helicopter traffic bound for East Hampton Airport to traverse a water route on the south shore, had legislation passed as part of the October 2018 FAA reauthorization bill requiring the agency, within 30 days of the enactment of the legislation, to open a public comment period and hold a public hearing on the rule.

The FAA held a public information meeting in Riverhead in an informal “workshop format” in November 2018. It did not take public testimony. Residents complained and local elected officials demanded a public hearing. Zeldin said the meeting did not satisfy the public hearing requirement in his legislation and vowed to do everything he could to make sure the agency complied. No public hearing was ever held. The FAA extended the rule for another two years in 2020, citing the need to do further research.

Meanwhile, following a packed public forum with Eastern Region Helicopter Council Vice President Jeff Smith held by Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith in October 2019, the helicopter council’s member pilots and operators agreed to maintain an all-water route around Orient Point. Use of the all-water route helped quiet the summer skies over the North Fork.

In the notice of extension published yesterday, the FAA noted that while “operators voluntarily agreed to fly the all-water route around Orient Point… it appears that many operators, while continuing to comply with the regulation, have ceased flying the all-water route.”

FAA: East Hampton Airport’s ‘operating status remains in flux’

East Hampton Airport’s contractual grant obligations with the FAA expired last September. Since then, the FAA said, “the airport’s operating status remains in flux.”

In January, the Town of East Hampton, notified the FAA that effective May 17, it would close the public-use East Hampton Airport and activate a new private-use, prior permission required, airport at the same location on May 19. The FAA published notice of closure in the Federal Register and activated the new private-use, prior permission required East Hampton Town Airport as of May 19.

But the East Hampton Town Airport has not begun operating as a private-use airport due to pending litigation and temporary restraining orders prohibiting the town from “continuing to take any steps to effectuate the closure of the airport, the conversion of the airport to a ‘private use’ facility, or the operation of the airport on a ‘prior permission required’ basis.”

On June 8, East Hampton Town indicated that if it cannot make the change to a private use airport, it may close the airport permanently, the FAA said.

East Hampton Town Airport is currently operating as if it is a public-use airport, the FAA said in the notice of the north shore helicopter route extension published in the Federal Register yesterday.

There is “no available timeline for resolution of the East Hampton Town Airport’s operating status and subsequent adjustments operators may make,” the FAA said in the notice. A four-year extension of the north shore helicopter route is expected to provide regulators with sufficient time to evaluate any new traffic redirection after the East Hampton airport’s operating status issues are resolved.

“Therefore, in light of the pending expiration date, to prevent confusion among pilots using the Route and avoid disruption of the current operating environment, the FAA finds notice and comment impractical and that good cause exists to make this interim final rule extending the expiration date of the Rule, effective in less than 30 days,” the FAA wrote.

While the rule was immediately adopted, the FAA did open a comment period, which continues through Aug. 29. Comments can be submitted online here; by postal mail to Docket Operations, M-30; U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Room W12-140, West Building Ground Floor, Washington, DC 20590-0001; by courier to Docket Operations in Room W12-140 of the West Building Ground Floor at 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except federal holiday; and by fax to Docket Operations at (202) 493-2251. Comments should refer to docket number FAA-2022-1029.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.