It has all come down to the middle of next week, when East Hampton Airport gets renamed and reclassified as a way to control air traffic and noise pollution. Whether meaningful reductions in flights by the most noxious aircraft will be achieved remains to be seen. There are several attempts underway to block the changes in court, and the new rules have yet to be tested.
The regulations when East Hampton’s airport becomes private next Thursday will limit aircraft operators to one takeoff and one landing per day, impose other restrictions based on the size and noise of aircraft, and limit aircraft operations to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday and on federal holidays.
It has been a long road to get to this point. In the 1980s and 1990s, the fight was over jets and to what extent the runways could accommodate them. The battle got bitter, and there was even an allegation, one that was not proven, that someone had secretly altered a key submission to the Federal Aviation Administration. More recently, as jets have gotten quieter, public frustration has shifted to the growing number of helicopter flights in and out of East Hampton Airport. When once closing the airport was not even whispered about, that drastic step is now under open consideration in Town Hall.
Last year, the town held “re-envisioning” sessions at which members of the public could spitball ideas for the land if the airport were eliminated. Hundreds of people took part. Among those filing comments with the town, just 5 percent wanted no changes. By contrast, 20 percent of participants thought the airport should be shuttered permanently.
A concurrent study paid for by the town found that the value of the airport to the local economy was minimal — accounting for at most 260 full-time jobs and 3 percent of taxable sales. Around 33,000 visitor-trips to East Hampton arrive by air annually — below 1 percent of the town’s total. About half of the people whose final destinations are within East Hampton Town are property owners, most of whom would presumably continue to come and go if the airport were gone. Seventy percent of the air passengers surveyed said they would continue to visit via other forms of transportation, softening any financial blow locally. On the positive side, the study’s authors said, closing the airport for good would improve the quality of life for residents (and visitors), reduce health risks, and help control noise, ground, and water pollution.
Having a local airport is a luxury, not a necessity, and that is something that a majority of residents now agree on. Aviation interests who push to maintain open access need to realize that they are facing a very stiff headwind and adjust their flight path to a less-confrontational route.