LIRR Strike May Be Boon for Hamptons Helicopter Operator

What’s bad for users of the busiest U.S. commuter-rail system is a boon for Zip Aviation, a helicopter service that flies between Manhattan and Long Island.

Zip, which offers helicopter commutes and chartered flights in the New York City area for as much as $3,500 round trip, will have all six choppers and all 10 pilots in the air next week to accommodate demand if workers at the Long Island Rail Road strike, Meagan Dooley, the company’s marketing director, said in a telephone interview.

“We’ve seen a spike in the number of phone calls we’ve received for commutes in from Long Island,” Dooley said. “We’ve had to be creative with our scheduling and we’ve also had to increase our staffing and the number of helicopters we have flying.”

Absent trains, commuters will need to find alternate ways on land, sea or air to travel between Manhattan and Long Island as LIRR workers will strike at 12:01 a.m. on July 20 unless they have a new contract. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and union groups representing about 5,400 LIRR workers resumed labor negotiations yesterday after talks broke down July 14.

48 Hours

They’re meeting again today at the Manhattan office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who involved himself directly in negotiations for the first time yesterday.

“We are less than 48 hours from the point at which the railroad would commence closing procedures,” Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat running for re-election, said in a statement. “I want to make sure I have done everything I can possibly to avert a strike.”

LIRR serves 300,000 daily riders, and has devised contingency plans for bus service and extra parking in case of a stoppage. The last strike was in 1994 and lasted two days.

“It’s a good sign that they’re at the table talking,” Adam Lisberg, an MTA spokesman, told reporters yesterday. “I don’t want to give you any false hopes about progress, but the fact that they’re talking is an important one for folks who hope that both sides can reach a resolution on this.”

Karen Newlands, 49, a marketing manager at Time Inc. from Bellmore said she plans to work from home in case of a strike. She stayed late last night because she is unsure she will be able to get to the office next week.

Finding Opportunity

“I’m not going to spend five hours getting to work,” she said. “The MTA has been issuing all these statements: ‘Use the shuttle bus as a last resort.’” They’re basically making it sound like it’s for emergency workers only. I already spend three hours a day going back and forth’’

Matt Crouthamel, who runs Uneedaride? Car Service, which serves Long Island, is set to deploy all of his vans, sport-utility vehicles and town cars next week.

“When there’s a tragedy on one end, it can be better for other markets,” Crouthamel said in a telephone interview. “With this strike, car services and taxis could increase their business drastically.”

Rental-car companies are also planning for more business. Hertz Corp. has added vehicles to its Long Island locations, said Paula Rivera, manager of public affairs at the company.

The MTA last month proposed a 17 percent wage increase over seven years for LIRR employees. The union was seeking 17 percent over six years, a position that was backed by two federal mediation boards.

Health Care

To help pay for that, the transit system wants current employees to contribute 2 percent of their salary to health insurance; they currently make no payments. New workers would direct 4 percent to health care and, unlike current employees, would contribute to their pensions after 10 years.

If the distance between bargaining positions can’t be bridged, the distance between the suburbs and the city must be.

The MTA said it plans to run more than 300 shuttle buses between eight Long Island locations and subway stops in Queens if the strike occurs. There also would be 4,000 free parking spots near Citi Field and 3,000 near Aqueduct Racetrack, both close to subway stations in Queens.

The minimum passenger limit on the Long Island Expressway’s high-occupancy lane would be raised to three from two to encourage carpooling. Seastreak Ferry LLC will run free boats from Glen Cove to East 34th Street in Manhattan, which can carry about 1,000 riders during morning and evening commutes.

“Seastreak stands by to assist,” said Brett Chamberlain, director of marketing for the company.

A strike would cost as much as $50 million per day in lost economic activity, New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said this week. It would harm Nassau and Suffolk counties during peak tourism season, when tens of thousands of New Yorkers flock to the Hamptons and other localities along the shoreline, DiNapoli said.

Rotor Wash

Zip Aviation typically has three or four flights a day between Manhattan and Long Island. That will increase next week, Dooley said. It costs as much as $3,000 to book a round-trip helicopter flight that seats four passengers and as much as $3,500 for a chopper accommodating six commuters, Dooley said. Flights take about 50 minutes each way.

“Next week is going to be very busy,” she said.

Commuters unable to take to the skies can pay $80 round trip on the Hampton Luxury Liner, which offers air conditioning, free Internet access and televised movies on its motor coaches. Riders will need the entertainment, as Bill Schoolman, chief executive officer of the bus line, anticipates two-to three-hour delays.

“If anything, the strike should drive home the point that there’s a desperate need to increase mass-transit capacity other than just the train and private car,” Schoolman said.

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