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New Rules Needed as Air Traffic Spreads

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 12:09


Who knew that after Uber and Lyft took over the roads — and helicopter-flight apps took over the sky — that the bays and harbors would be next? That is apparently what the Suffolk Legislature has noticed coming. Legislator Al Krupski came up with a bill that foresees a day soon when barges will be moored in mostly East End waters to accommodate aircraft passengers’ comings and goings, as air travel increases and land-based sites like East Hampton Town Airport eventually impose effective restrictions.

The changes to Suffolk ferry-licensing law will tackle previously unregulated on-demand water-taxi and “limo” operations, which were, prior to the approval of the bill, free to come and go as they liked. Instead, services now have to submit dates and hours of operation in order to be licensed to carry passengers. They must also produce written agreements with dock owners for sites used as pickup and drop-off locations. Routes must also be clearly defined.

The bill also sets a maximum number of passengers that water taxis can carry at one time and grants enforcement power to local authorities. The regulation defines water limousines as having a maximum capacity of eight passengers; water taxis can have up to 37 people aboard. It is worth noting, too, that the watercraft bill passed unanimously in the Legislature.

As has been the rule for years, the Legislature itself must hold a public hearing for each passenger-carrying license application. The licenses themselves are valid for up to five years. Revocations are also subject to hearings. While the fine of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 thereafter may be an adequate deterrent to the water-taxi operators and others, the threat of a license revocation is the more powerful incentive for them to comply.

In a news release about the bill, Mr. Krupski said that the East End waters were already used, and that increased commercial operations would create conflicts and negatively affect quality of life for other users of the bays and the greater community. “We also must be incredibly careful not to add more uses that will compromise water quality and our environment,” he said.

All may not be smooth sailing, however. Efforts to constrain flights at East Hampton Town Airport have come under a barrage of legal opposition from the helicopter companies and related interests. Already lawyered-up, they may well seek the courts’ assistance in keeping the waters as chaotic as the skies. We hope this does not happen, but more litigation is likely.

The East End towns and villages need also to look at their own laws to see where additions might be warranted. East Hampton banned seaplanes within 1,500 feet of its shores, but the measure has not been effectively enforced in several instances and pilots know that. More will need to be done in concert with the new county rules.

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