Town officials said this week that they would step up the war on noise at East Hampton Airport with new rules that could go into effect by sometime in May. To do this, they plan to shut the facility for four days, then reopen it as a private airport, albeit one that is publicly owned. With the airport private, the town in theory could just say no to certain kinds of aircraft and commercial flights or limit the number and timing of takeoffs and landings. There will be a lot to talk about before the first round of regulations is put in place by the coming summer. One thorny question will be what to do about the private jets that are owned outright or in fractional shares by some of the area’s highest rollers. There are also a handful of East Hampton residents with their own personal helicopters; how to accommodate them while excluding others could be a real puzzle. But, as owner, the town could even close the airport for good, if three votes could be mustered among town board members.
A desire for balance may undermine the maneuver’s effectiveness — at least in the foreseeable future. The town board was to have voted later today on a resolution that said, in part, that new limits would not block “certain operators” from continuing to use the airport. This may not be the sort of hard line that airport opponents had sought. It also may put extraordinary power into the hands of the town officials whose role it would be to decide who could or could not land there. One need only think back to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that commercial helicopter companies showered on town candidates some years ago. When there is big money at stake, some of the “stakeholders,” as the town puts it, will go to great lengths to protect their investments.
Somewhere on the horizon is the prospect of electric aircraft, which could produce less noise than traditional planes and the helicopters that they are being designed to replace. Already big players like UPS and Uber are getting very interested. However, Federal Aviation Administration approval for commercial passenger flights is still years away.
Taking the airport private seems a good first step. Coming up with effective rules to reduce pollution and noise that could also withstand shifts in the political wind will be the trick.