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Up In The Air

The future of the East End hangs in the balance as flights to East Hampton threaten to be grounded permanently

The flight from New York City to East Hampton takes about 45 minutes. The same trip by car—or the storied Hamptons Jitney—on a busy summer weekend can take hours. So, for a certain breed of Hamptons resident willing to pay the price to avoid spending a significant part of the weekend sitting in traffic, a flight to the East End can make all the difference. 

That’s precisely why Jeff Smith, executive director of the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council, is working with a group called Friends of the East Hampton Airport. Their aim is to keep the airport—which could lose its rights to operate as it does now later this year—running smoothly. 

Here, at the height of the Hamptons summer season, Smith explains why air traffic is a small price to pay for the economic health of the South Fork.  

Why is the East Hampton Airport in trouble?

This has been going on for quite a few years, but this is what I call the magic year. At the end of this year, because of a third-party legal settlement, the FAA has agreed not to enforce three grant assurances that come along with taking taxpayer money. The airport took taxpayer money 13 years ago and with that came 20 years of assurances that said anybody who wants to can fly in or out of East Hampton airport, but this legal settlement says they have to give back those rights seven years early—meaning December of this year.

What does that mean for people who commute to the Hamptons on helicopters or planes?

What the town plans on doing is putting restrictions on times for seaplanes, helicopters and jets, which make up 56 percent of the revenue that comes into the airport. The airport needs severe maintenance, and the town is saying they will pay for those improvements by farming that out to the local taxpayers. But if you take away 56 percent of the revenue, how can you pay for anything?

How are the opponents of the way the airport currently operates able to justify that kind of loss?

The answer is that they think they can still afford it. They’re also putting bans and restrictions on some of the area’s biggest property owners. Are they going to be told to drive? That’s not going to happen. What will happen is people will start selling their homes and nobody will want to go out there because of limited access. That will put a huge burden on the town. We did a study last year saying the indirect spending by those people who fly in is, at minimum, $49 million each year. That means jobs in hotels, restaurants and in private homes. Those are jobs that these people are paying for.

Surely driving isn’t the only option.

People can fly into Westhampton, which means it will only be a few years to drive to East Hampton. The heaviest traffic out there starts at the merge into East Hampton, and then you have to drive on a two-lane highway. You could be looking at a two-hour drive after you land.

Still, plenty of people mange to visit the Hamptons without flying. Sure it’s convenient, but is it really a necessity?

There’s a study we did with NYU that gives a lot of background information on this. If you look at the people who go out there, more drive than fly, but out of the people who fly there is a much larger population of people who are spending money. There is a direct correlation between being able to fly out there on a helicopter and spending money in the area.

 The complaints about the airport seem to be mostly about noise.  

They’re claiming that it’s an issue of noise and quality of life, that the noise is wrecking people’s weekends. The thing is, it’s a very small group of people in the large scheme of things, but they’re very vocal.

So what’s standing between this small group of people and what you’re asserting is common sense? 

Most of the people in this group are property owners and developers. East Hampton airport has 600 acres of property; one of these people owns 40 acres on the north side of the airport and another is a luxury homebuilder. I believe there is an underlying motive that has nothing to do with noise. If the FAA did a study, I believe it would have inconclusive findings regarding a noise problem, and that’s why the town is funding their own study and hiring their own experts. 

Do you really believe that people could abandon the Hamptons? 

In the old days, people went out to the Catskills. That used to be the ultimate summer destination for New Yorkers. Until, of course, air traffic became more affordable and it bankrupted the whole area. People just walked away from it, and the same thing can happen to East Hampton. Opponents of the airport say people will just take the Jitney; they think these billionaires will get on a bus to come out here. That’s not going to happen.  



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