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Getting the chop: helicopter tours in NY city

Adrian Ma Oct 10, 2016
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According to the New York City Economic Development Corp., there were nearly 60,000 helicopter tours in Manhattan in 2015. Now, that number is getting cut in half. 
Adrian Ma

People come from around the world to see New York’s iconic skyscrapers. But for many, the ol’ double-decker bus just doesn’t cut it. In recent years, more and more visitors to NYC have chosen to do their sightseeing in a helicopter.

For anywhere from $200 to $2,000 per person, the choppers ferry tourists up and down the Hudson River for an Instagramable view of the city.

“We offer a great product, which people come here and they demand,” said Sam Goldstein, a spokesman for the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council.

In 2015, there were nearly 60,000 helicopter tours in Manhattan, according to the New York City Economic Development Corp (NYCEDC). If you only count the hours they’re allowed to fly (between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.) that’s an average of one heli-tour every three-and-a-half minutes.

But as the number of tours has climbed, so have complaints from residents who say the noise from passing choppers is driving them crazy. Under pressure from community activists, the city is now forcing the tours to cut flights in half by January 2017.

The agency responsible for overseeing the reduction, NYCEDC, said the 50 percent cut is the best way to preserve quality-of-life for Manhattan residents and an industry that generates millions of dollars each year in tourism and taxes.

But Karen McDermott, who lives in a high-rise apartment facing the Hudson, said the cuts don’t go deep enough.  Although McDermott grew up near LaGuardia Airport, and was used to the sound of planes, she says helicopters are different.

“You’re feeling it in your chest. You actually physically feel them, you don’t just hear them,” she said.

Helicopter tours along New York City’s riverfront.

“So as high as I put my music or if I put on the TV, it doesn’t matter. I’ve literally gone into the bathtub and gone under the water to get away from them, and I can hear them under the water,” she said.

Unwilling to wait and see if the flight reduction would provide some relief, McDermott spent almost $25,000 to have new, insulated windows installed in her apartment.

 Of course, the five helicopter tour companies that operate in Manhattan aren’t happy about the cuts.  The companies currently employ more than 200 pilots, mechanics, and sales staff, according to Goldstein, the industry spokesman, and may need to eliminate  jobs as a result of the tour reduction. 

“It’s tough on our operators and tough on our businesses,” he said. “Fifty percent can be in a lot of cases a near fatal cut.”

But, he added, “we worked with the city to find something that we think will keep us operating and make the community get some noticeable relief.”

John Culpepper, a Dallas resident who took a helicopter tour of the city last spring, was less sympathetic about the noise complaints.

“They need to get a life,” he said, when told that some city residents want to stop the rides. “They have to understand where you are, where you live, and what’s here. This is not for them. This is for the world.”

He doesn’t have to worry too much. Even after the flights are reduced by half, tourists like Culpepper will have about 30,000 chances to take  a tour next year. 

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