Despite a late start in coming up with new rules for East Hampton Airport, the town appears to be making progress. Just how effective the restrictions will be at taming aircraft noise remains to be seen, but another kind of noise is only just getting started. As the May 19 rechristening of the town airport approaches, the volume of threats from scheduled-air companies flying out of New York City will increase, too. More thunder will be heard in lawsuits from all sides, those for-profit entities that seek unfettered access and citizens groups seeking peace and quiet. The outcome of all of this remains entirely uncertain.
The big change anticipated is that aircraft operators will have to get permission to land in East Hampton before they arrive — sort of. Private owner-pilots will be able to fly in and out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the weekends, as will private jets. Everything else — commercial and fractional ownership aircraft of all types — will be limited to one round trip per day. According to a town consultant, this will affect nearly all helicopters, seaplanes, and many jets. Another important move is banning large jets outright. Together with the new operating hours, the changes are intended to tackle about two-thirds of the sources of complaints historically.
Seaplane landings may be emerging as a new battleground. In particular, the waters off Sag Harbor, for-hire air transportation companies have said, could become a new hub. This is a potentially significant problem for officials. Though there is a seaplane ban already in place in East Hampton Town jurisdiction, there is no specific enforcement plan. Anecdotally, seaplanes regularly land and take off after taxiing ashore in Gardiner’s Bay in Amagansett with impunity. When asked recently, one town official with direct responsibility answered — implausibly — that that was news to him. A similar situation has arisen in Fort Pond Bay, Montauk.
How the changes might affect other airports is a concern, too, but should not be allowed to block the effort to reduce aircraft noise. More than 500 comments came in during the town’s work on an impact study — including impacts on potential human health and wildlife. A key question is how what happens at East Hampton affects the privately owned Montauk Airport — whether, as threatened by helicopter companies, vastly more air traffic ends up there as a result.
Many of the people who commented on the impact study said they hoped the town could buy the Montauk airstrip and impose similar restrictions there. A final report is expected to be completed after the summer.
How all of this plays out depends a lot on what happens during the blizzard of anticipated litigation. The fight for quieter skies above the East End is far from over, but it seems that at long last the promise of real results is at hand.