Election Likely Seals Fate of East Hampton Airport

 - November 3, 2021, 4:00 PM
Local airport traffic will likely be significantly restricted in 2022 after the November 2nd re-election of East Hampton, New York Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc.

The November 2 reelection of East Hampton, New York town supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc after the September 25 expiration of FAA grant assurance restrictions at East Hampton Airport (KHTO) virtually guarantees that local airport traffic will be significantly restricted over the coming months. Limits are likely on commercial operations, including a strict curfew targeting jet and helicopter traffic. Lifting of federal grant restrictions means the town can do virtually whatever it pleases with regard to airport closure or reduced operations.

In a November 2020 letter to Van Scoyoc, David Fish, FAA eastern region director, airports division, gave the town four options once the grant assurances expired: negotiate an agreement for mandatory restrictions on aircraft operators per Part 161; close the airport and then reopen it; completely close the airport; or continue to operate as a public-use airport. 

Fish counseled that the first option would require the town to gain approval for any restrictions from the airport proprietor, all based aircraft operators, and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation while option two merely required the closure of the airport to extinguish any remaining FAA obligations including exclusive rights, revenue use, and civil rights. The town could then reopen the airport without such encumbrances. 

And that appears to be what is on tap. The town’s likely first move will be to temporarily close the airport, perhaps as early as January, a required initial legal precursor to converting it from public-use status to publicly owned, private use. Taken to extremes, the change could require all airport users to obtain prior permission from the town for each aircraft operation or to purchase access rights annually.  

Van Scoyoc, widely seen as the principal decider with regard to the airport’s future, has been transparent with regard to his vision for the airport going forward. In a series of campaign communiques he issued in October, Van Scoyoc said he favored closing KHTO “for the shortest period of time” required to convert it to private use and then reopening it with a “cautious and deliberative approach” that would not merely shift existing traffic to other area airports, including Montauk (KMTP) and Gabreski (KFOK).

The area is served by those airports as well as another airport (Mattituck, 21N) and the Southampton Village Heliport (87N). The latter is not open at night. “Rules and regulations must be tailored to specific operations, with the goal of limiting volume, frequency, noise, and environmental impacts," Van Scoyoc said. "We must always keep an eye on possible diversion. Restricting helicopter flights to daylight hours at East Hampton’s airport should not cause diversion to Montauk, as similar restrictions there already apply." He added that Montauk’s 3,246-foot long runway is too short to handle most jet traffic. 

Van Scoyoc appears to be trying to fashion a middle road with regard to KHTO as other local office candidates had favored closing the airport permanently or banning commercial jet and helicopter traffic there altogether.

Helicopter traffic, in particular, has soared at KHTO in recent years, driven by the ever-worsening clog on the Long Island Expressway. This ground snarl combined with the emergence of per-seat helicopter and seaplane platforms, such as Blade, and the pandemic, which saw thousands of New Yorkers shift their principal residences from the city to their second homes in the Hamptons.

Helicopter flight time from midtown Manhattan to KHTO is a mere 32 minutes, compared with at least three hours by car and typically more—sometimes much more, depending on traffic. Annual operations at KHTO now top 28,000 and a growing number of these flights are by rotorcraft.

Between 2016 and 2019, flight operations at KHTO increased by 50 percent. In 2017 alone, helicopter operations increased 27 percent and by 2018 fully one-third of all operations at the airport were by helicopters. Helicopter operations at the airport surged from 3,770 in 2016 to 5,588 the following year. Not surprisingly, helicopter operations comprised the vast majority of all of the area’s 35,000 aircraft noise complaints in 2018. 

The airport, which began as a bucolic grass strip in the 1930s, is today a 600-acre hive of activity that sports a seasonal control tower and that saw 60 percent of its traffic occur in July, August, and September until the pandemic hit. Compared with 2019, flights for the last four months of 2020 at KHTO increased 14 percent in September, 68 percent in October, 58 percent in November, and 82 percent in December.  

East Hampton’s political leaders have consistently sought to limit airport operations over the last 20 years, most recently failing in their attempt to block special VFR (SVFR) operations there, a move seen as directed at limiting helicopter traffic. A temporary restraining order issued July 30 by U.S. District Judge Gary R. Brown blocked that gambit. In 2016, politicians tried to discriminately apply an airport curfew only to “noisy” aircraft. 

What exact moves the town intends to take with regard to helicopters remains to be seen, but it is significant that the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC) failed to reach a voluntary agreement with the airport for this year's helicopter routing there as per prior years’ practice. Consulting firms hired by the town reported in October that 80 percent of area residents surveyed found the status quo with regard to KHTO operations unacceptable, but only 20 percent favored a complete closure; 80 percent believed that the airport should remain open, but with restrictions.

In October, Van Scoyoc wrote, “I anticipate that by the end of January [2022], depending on what the final results of our studies show, we will largely reduce or eliminate commercial helicopter and jet traffic, preventing the need to close the East Hampton airport completely.”