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What’s Noisy, Loved by Tourists and Comes From New Jersey?

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Five years ago, New York City banned sightseeing helicopters from using its landing pads on Sundays, ostensibly giving residents one day of respite from the thumping overhead parade that had spurred thousands of complaints.

But the prohibition has not turned Sundays into a day of peace. Far from it. The city is still being buzzed by helicopters more than 150 times on some Sundays — and hundreds more times on weekdays.

All that noise is driving many New Yorkers, who have been stuck in their apartments during the pandemic, to near-constant distraction.

Stacey Shub, who lives near the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, feels as if she were under siege.

As the helicopters move closer, and their unmistakable thwup-thwup-thwup turns into a roar that fills her apartment, her heart speeds up, and Ms. Shub loses focus.

On one recent sunny Sunday, she counted six helicopters flying overhead before 1 p.m. “It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” she said.

New Yorkers have always had a fraught relationship with noise. Though the urban cacophony can be vexing, it is also intrinsic to the frenetic character that draws many to the city. Some level of noise has always been deemed an acceptable price to pay for living in New York.

But the coronavirus pandemic brought a huge upheaval to the city’s daily rhythms. For months last year, the bustling metropolis hushed, an abrupt shift that led New Yorkers to rethink their relationship to noise.

Passengers wait in Kearny, N.J., to board a sightseeing helicopter operated by NYONAir. The company offers doors-off flights. Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Calls about noise to the city’s 311 hotline jumped in 2020 and are on pace to continue to do so this year. And calls about helicopter noise have spiked significantly.

Through the end of September, the city received 17,733 calls about helicopter noise, more than triple the number during the same period last year. Those calls already eclipse the helicopter-noise complaints made to 311 in all of last year and in 2019.

The overwhelming majority have come from Manhattan, with just under 3,200 from the other four boroughs.

Elected officials have reported a similar boom in calls as New Yorkers have shifted to working from home, away from office buildings that are better built to filter the din of the city.

“It’s a lot of people whose apartments lie in the flight path and people who now work at home,” said Mark Levine, a city councilman who represents parts of northern Manhattan.

Helicopters fly through the city’s skies for many purposes, including law-enforcement operations and medical transport, but much of the ire has focused on commercial and tourist flights.

The spike in complaints comes as legislative efforts at the federal and state level to limit such flights have failed to gain traction. It has also coincided with a resurgence of sightseeing flights.

Flights from the two heliports in Manhattan owned by the city plunged last year, but have started to rebound this year. Helicopter traffic from New Jersey is more difficult to quantify, but also appears to have picked up.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the two heliports, one near Wall Street and the other along the East River, says the pandemic reduced revenue at the sites by more than 80 percent.

While most companies offering aerial tours of the city have suffered financially, there is one exception — NYONAir.

The company, also operating as FlyNYON, is known for two things: doors-off tours that let customers dangle their feet out of open helicopters to take “shoe selfies,” and a 2018 crash in which five passengers drowned in the East River.

After the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration banned the type of harnesses that NYON used at the time. But they allowed doors-off tours to continue.

Since then, they have only become more popular. On one Sunday in late July, more than one-third of the 157 flights over a broad swath of the city were operated by NYON from its base in Kearny, N.J., an analysis of Flightradar24 data found.

A helicopter operated NYONAir crashed in the East River in 2018, and five passengers drowned.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

A typical flight zips up the Hudson River, crosses over the Upper West Side, lingers over Central Park, then flies down the East River to the tip of Lower Manhattan. After a slow pass over the Brooklyn Bridge and a long loop around Liberty Island, passengers are typically back in Kearny in just over 15 minutes.

Several years ago, sightseeing flights like those generated so many complaints that the city struck a deal with tour companies to limit their frequency, curtail their routes and bar them from flying on Sunday.

But NYON and other operators based outside the city were unaffected: They are free to fly over the city at low altitude with almost no restrictions. Another operator, Helicopter Flight Services, offers flights over Central Park from Linden, N.J.

NYON and Helicopter Flight Services did not respond to several requests for comment.

NYON did yield to some pressure this spring, said Jeffery Smith, an executive with the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which represents helicopter companies.

Following complaints from New York City officials, Mr. Smith said the Council persuaded NYON to stop “loitering” over Central Park and other parts of the city.

“They did make a change,” Mr. Smith said. “And we’re always up for more change.”

But Ms. Shub and others say that the flights slowly circling near city landmarks have not stopped, pointing to data from Flightradar24’s app to prove that New Jersey-based companies are still disrupting the skies.

Stacey Shub, who lives near the South Street Seaport, said helicopter noise causes her heart rate to speed up. “It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” she said.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Ajit Thomas, who lives on the Upper West Side, said that over the last year, he has seen more helicopters hovering over Central Park, showering noise on one of Manhattan’s quieter oases.

“Given the frequency and how low they’re flying, it’s really miserable,” he said.

Some New Jersey lawmakers have introduced legislation to prohibit tourist helicopter operations in the state and cut down on flights statewide.

The bill’s fate is unclear, but a spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation said the agency believed such legislation would be pre-empted by federal law.

Still, a spokesman for Gov. Philip D. Murphy said that residents “should not have to deal with constant New York City tourist helicopter traffic” and that Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, supported efforts to regulate helicopter noise “on the federal level.”

Mr. Levine and other New York City officials have also said that their ability to address complaints remains limited given that the F.A.A. is responsible for regulating the safety of U.S. airspace and has shown little interest in enacting stricter rules.

Citing F.A.A. inaction, several House Democrats from New York have reintroduced a 2019 bill that would stop nonessential helicopters from flying above the city.

An F.A.A. spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on pending legislation. But the agency generally does not limit when, where or how often helicopters can fly.

Melissa Elstein, the secretary of Stop the Chop, an organization seeking to limit helicopter flights, said that she had initially assumed the helicopters passing above Central Park and the Hudson and East rivers were police or military aircraft. She was outraged to learn that most are carrying sightseers.

“It’s insanity that this is happening over New York City,” she said.

Ms. Elstein said that the sound also conjures traumatic memories for New Yorkers who remember the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. “It puts us on high alert,” she said.

Studies have also found that helicopter noise can be particularly irritating to the general public, and in a survey this year, the F.A.A. cited research showing that noise from aircraft provoked “higher levels of annoyance” than the same sound levels from sources on the ground.

Such noise is at the heart of disputes across the country over helicopter traffic, including the protracted fight to close the East Hampton Airport in Long Island, which also handles private jets. Neighbors say the problem has worsened in recent years after a boost in Uber-like services like Blade, which provides direct helicopter travel from Manhattan to East Hampton for about $800 a seat.

City residents who live near the Manhattan heliports have also complained about the noise from Blade’s flights. The company’s chief executive, Rob Wiesenthal, said the company plans to switch to quieter electric aircraft but that it opposed closing the East Hampton Airport.

In Manhattan, Ms. Shub said that she no longer bothers calling 311 because the complaints had been fruitless.

And Mr. Thomas has become so attuned to the sound of a passing helicopter that he cannot sleep through it.

“I’m more aware of the injustice,” he said. “And that wakes you up a little more fully than a passing ambulance.”

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