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What Would a New York City Ban on Helicopters Look Like?

June 11, 2019
6 min read
Hudson Yards in New York City
What Would a New York City Ban on Helicopters Look Like?

Within hours of a dramatic helicopter crash that left the pilot dead atop a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan, there were calls for helicopter to be banned from flying over New York City.

"It's a tragedy that keeps happening and an even greater tragedy that's waiting to happen," said John Dellaportas, president of Stop the Chop NYNJ, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending helicopter traffic over and around the city. "There is no excuse on God's green Earth why any nonessential helicopters should be flying anywhere in the New York City metropolitan area, over buildings, over land, over water."

Almost immediately after the crash Wednesday, US Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, called for an outright ban on helicopters over the city, with exceptions only for police and emergency flights.

"We were very lucky no one else was seriously injured yesterday while evacuating the building, that there wasn’t a collapse or a worse fire," Maloney, who represents the part of Manhattan where the crash happened, said via email. "The worst-case scenario would be a helicopter or portions of a helicopter crashing onto the streets below, as happened in 1977 and resulted in the ban of rooftop helipads. A helicopter could crash through a portion of a building and hurt people inside the building, similar to the Cory Lidle plane a few years ago. There’s really no reason to allow people to go joyriding over a densely populated urban area."

(Helicopters do not take off or land in urban Manhattan, though. All three of the city's heliports are on the water.)

If New York City were to ban helicopters, it might take its lead from any number of major cities around the world with varying degrees of regulations against flights. Paris, for example, is known for its strict no-fly zone over the city, which forbids helicopters (and all nonmilitary planes flying under 6,500 feet) over the city except in special circumstances. (The "Paris" heliport is actually in Issy-les-Moulineaux in the southwestern suburbs.)

London is less restrictive but dictates specific routes for helicopters into and through the city, all under the watchful eye and constant instruction of air traffic controllers. Certain parts of the city — Downing Street and Buckingham Palace are obvious examples — are strictly off-limits no matter what.

On the other end of the spectrum from Paris is Sao Paulo, Brazil, which has such loose rules about helicopter overflights that relatively cheap chopper commutes have emerged as a viable alternative to roads for those other than the ultrarich.

In two of Asia's major metropolises, helicopter flights, at least for civilians, aren't a common sight for different reasons. The Chinese military still keeps a firm hand on flights over Beijing, stymieing what helicopter companies have hoped for a few years now would turn out to be a booming market. In Tokyo, on the other hand, the city's restrictive noise ordinances mean that hitching a ride on a helo in the Japanese capital is relatively unlikely — unless you're a high-ranking government official or a news crew. Which is surprising if you consider the fact that Tokyo has more rooftop helipads than any other city in Asia — more than 80.

Back in the US, Los Angeles may have done away with hits requirement that tall buildings come with helipads (as in Tokyo, safety officials had wanted a way to evacuate people in tall buildings in an earthquake), but the constant drone of spinning blades has all but defeated opponents of the ubiquitous tourist helicopters. In fact, besides the usual military and other sensitive sites, the only metropolitan American area that is almost free from civilian helicopter flights is a protected area around Washington, DC — and both Disneyland and Disney World, whose lobbyists snuck in the prohibitions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and quietly made them permanent a couple years later.

A helicopter flies over the East River in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Treasuries advanced, further inverting a key slice of the yield curve, while stocks fluctuated as investors positioned for what could be a protracted trade dispute with China. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A helicopter flies over the East River in New York on May 28, 2019 (Photo by Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

"Why is Washington, DC, a flight-restricted zone and New York not?" Dellaportas said in a telephone interview. "If that helicopter crashed into the Department of Agriculture, would we grind to a halt as a nation? If DC is a flight-restricted zone, so should we be."

Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration could theoretically institute an immediate ban on helicopter flights wherever it wanted within the US, including over and around New York City. Maloney said she's starting there.

"I can’t comment on meetings that haven’t yet been scheduled, but I will be speaking with all relevant entities, including the FAA and the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board]," she said. "I am reviewing my legislative options to create a ban on nonessential helicopters flying over our city."

"It would be premature to consider any actions pending the outcome of the investigation," the Federal Aviation Administration said in an emailed statement.

Dellaporta had another solution, though. Only three helipads operate out of Manhattan along the shore, and the majority of helicopter flights take off from the one near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. (He cited documents from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which oversees tourist helicopter companies in the city, that revealed that between in six months of 2013 alone, there were 33,378 chopper tours in New York.) According to the contract the helipad operator has with the city, the mayor of New York can cancel the contract at any time in the name of public safety.

"Unfortunately, we're living in a beehive of helicopter activity in this period, and it's only getting worse," Dellaporta said.

The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't respond to requests for comment by publication.

"This is mostly a tourist service that's easily replicable through the Circle Line [ferry] or any other number of those," Dellaporta said. "And to the extent that businessmen feel like they need to cut in line and get to the airport 15 minutes early, I can only say: Plan ahead! You live in New York City!"

Featured image by Getty Images