Copter Buzz Pits NYC Tourists Against Waterfront Dwellers

Five tourists, their noise-canceling headphones set to stream Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” over a helicopter’s roar, glide past Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty, then north to Yankee Stadium.

Twenty-five minutes later, they’re back at a downtown Manhattan heliport, taking photos as the next passengers wait, hands over their ears.

The racket, temporary for visitors, is part of life for New Jerseyans and New Yorkers who live along the Hudson River flight path, their walls rattling and their barbecues ruined. Though the daily trips -- as many as 200 over 10 hours -- generate about $33 million a year in tourism spending, the residents say no amount of revenue is worth the aural assault.

“Sitting outside at a restaurant, you have to stop your conversation every 5 seconds to be heard,” said Delia von Neuschatz, a writer in her 40s who said she regrets leaving the Upper East Side 18 months ago for Battery Park City, at the southern tip of Manhattan.

Co-founder of a 2,000-member group called Stop the Chop NYNJ, von Neuschatz has never done the chopper trip. They typically take 12 to 20 minutes, cost $175 to $225 per passenger and show a Manhattan view unrivaled by any double-decker bus tour.

“There is no way I would contribute a dime to these people,” she said by telephone on Oct. 24.

Escaping Noise

The noise has led 48-year-old Brian Wagner of Hoboken, New Jersey, who co-founded Stop the Chop, and his wife to pack their two dogs and split town in a rental car on weekends. It’s driven Wayne Roberts, a 53-year-old marketing executive, from his backyard grill, two miles south of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

On Oct. 28, a stream of tour buyers, many speaking German, Italian and French, lined up on Pier 6, on the East River a dozen blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. Saker Aviation Services Inc., the heliport’s operator, requires passengers to clear metal detectors, show identification, watch a safety video and snap on flotation vests prior to boarding.

Aboard a Bell 407GX on Pad 11, the pilot finishes a pre-flight check and programs the headsets to stream music and sightseeing tips in English and, at his passengers’ request, German. The copter lifts and makes a loop around Upper New York Harbor as the recording keeps pace with landmarks: This is the World Trade Center site. The Empire State Building has a mass of 350,000 tons. Columbia University is an Ivy League school. Yankee Stadium was rebuilt. Englewood, New Jersey, sits atop cliffs. Here’s the George Washington Bridge.

Ol’ Blue Eyes

Around Hoboken, where Wagner says helicopters cause the walls of his apartment to shake within a four-story brownstone, the music stream fades from the bossa nova of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and for the rest of trip it’s Sinatra, who was born in that New Jersey city.

“I was probably mentally shaking my fist at your helicopter,” von Neuschatz says by e-mail.

Though opposition to helicopters has sprung up in such tourist destinations as Los Angeles, London and Hawaii, Stop the Chop says the noise in the New York City area is the most constant and affects at least 2 million residents, far more than elsewhere. Even New Yorkers who kvetch about Manhattan-to-East Hampton copter charters, which charge as much as $7,700 round trip, get a break when beach season ends.

Manhattan Views

In New Jersey, Stop the Chop has support from 10 riverside mayors, including those in Hoboken and Jersey City, where $2 million-plus high-rise apartments are marketed on their Manhattan views. Democratic U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker sent a letter Aug. 8 to Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta, saying that if a tourist helicopter ban were beyond the agency’s powers, they would take the matter to Congress.

Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman based in Jamaica, New York, said by e-mail on Oct. 29 that the agency “will respond directly” to Menendez. He declined to comment on a resolution in support of a ban that New Jersey lawmakers approved in October.

Stop the Chop and elected officials also are appealing to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, asking him to shut down the city-owned heliport.

“The status quo of largely unregulated flights that endanger tourists and disturb the peace in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and New Jersey neighborhoods is unacceptable,” according to an Aug. 8 letter signed by 21 elected officials from New York, including U.S. Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, all Democrats.

Complaints Down

De Blasio’s communications staff didn’t respond to a phone call and e-mails for comment. Ian Fried, a spokesman for the New York City Economic Development Corp., which estimates $33 million in spending generated by the tours’ five vendors, said related noise complaints have dropped 80 percent from when they began in 2010.

“The great majority of helicopter noise complaints are actually connected to emergency services, news, charter and other kinds of helicopter traffic,” Fried said in an e-mail.

Brian Tolbert, manager of the heliport for Avoca, Pennsylvania-based Saker Aviation Services Inc., didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Tourist Draw

From April to October 2013, there were 33,378 tourist flights from the heliport, for a six-month daily average of 184, according to Stop the Chop, which cited data from a public-records request. Jeff Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, a Colonia, New Jersey-based lobbying group, says the 12-month average is 120 to 130 daily flights, and can exceed 200 on holidays.

“We take noise complaints seriously,” Smith said by telephone on Oct. 23.

Smith said safety is foremost. After nine people were killed in the August 2009 collision of a small private plane and a tourist helicopter above the Hudson River, the FAA mandated speed and altitude standards and more pilot training.

At the heliport on Oct. 28, Rob Walker, a 27-year-old customer service manager from Manchester, England, was about to check in with his wife, Becky Walker, a 31-year-old retail manager. They received a flight certificate as a gift for their wedding in August, and said they weren’t aware that residents were campaigning for a ban.

“That would really annoy me,” Rob Walker said as he considered the noise along the flight path. “But you need the tourists. You’re going to need that money.”