Flying into East Hampton, a Busy Airport Where the City Seeks To Limit Operations

The town of East Hampton wants to limit airport use, but charter operators and pilots have taken the town to court.

East Hampton Airport is is inviting, with a friendly, easygoing control tower staff, pleasant line personnel, and a bright, airy FBO. [Photo: Jonathan Welsh]

There is no sign of controversy on approach to East Hampton Airport (KHTO) on New York’s Long Island. Crossing Long Island Sound last week and descending over the picturesque forested area surrounding the airport, you could understand why the place attracts so many visitors.

The airport is inviting, with a friendly, easygoing control tower staff, pleasant line personnel, and a bright, airy FBO. During my recent midweek visit, a handful of small piston aircraft, turboprops, and a jet shared ramp space. I didn’t see any helicopters. On weekends, with summer approaching, traffic is sure to pick up. Pilots who use the airport regularly have described a hive-like atmosphere on summer weekends.  

East Hampton is part of a larger area on Long Island's East End known as the Hamptons, which has long been a weekend and vacation destination for New York City dwellers. Many of these travelers come and go via charter operators that use the airport. Others use their own private aircraft.

Lately, town officials have sought to exert more control over airport operations to reduce the volume of visitors flying in and out. The town says its planned changes reflect the need to address a rise in noise complaints over the past several years. But private pilots, charter operators, and others are concerned that the town’s moves will make flying in the area more difficult.

The airport opened in 1937, but the area’s aviation history dates to the 1920s when farm fields formed a network of landing strips for barnstorming biplane pilots. Howard Hughes reportedly landed a seaplane on nearby Georgica Pond to visit a family whose property abutted its shore. The airport brought a growing number of actors, politicians, captains of industry, and other celebrities to the Hamptons through the 1930s and 1940s. That trend has continued to the present and generated increasing conflict between full-time residents and wealthy summertime vacationers.

The arrival of new flight services in the last several years, like Blade Air Mobility, which uses an app that makes it easy for users to book seats on helicopter shuttles, have led to increases in traffic and, some residents say, more noise. It is true that helicopters, particularly those with ducted-fan style tail rotors, make sounds that many people find grating.

However, anyone who has traveled to the Hamptons regularly can understand the appeal of the helicopter shuttles because, though expensive, the flights save time. They make the trip from Manhattan in about a half hour when driving can take three hours or longer, sometimes much longer. Flying is by far the best way to get there. Even a Cessna 172 can get to East Hampton in less than an hour from northern New Jersey.

[Photo: Jonathan Welsh]

Courts have previously struck down local efforts to impose curfews and other rules affecting flight operations. Earlier this year, the town planned, after discussions with the FAA, to temporarily close the airport in February and reopen it as a private-use facility. 

The town later delayed its plans until May. However, after several businesses and pilot groups based at the airport began legal proceedings against the town, a New York State Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order keeping the airport open to the public until the conflicts can be sorted out.

East Hampton officials said they continue “to consider all available legal options, remedies, and alternatives regarding the airport, and will continue to keep the public informed.”

Meanwhile, GA pilots in light aircraft are unlikely to notice much difference in airport operations even if the town’s plans go through because, according to the proposed new airport rules, small piston airplanes are not considered “noisy” and will not have to secure special permission before landing. They can simply radio the tower for clearance as usual.

As an FBO staffer told me while looking out the window at my 172 parked on the ramp, “You won’t have to worry because you’re a little guy.”

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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