FAA tells LA residents more data needed before mandatory restrictions to ease helicopter noise can be considered

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration showed this map of the Los Angeles region that shows what is likely a 24-hour snapshot of helicopter flight paths. The green shows flights that are 500 to 1,000 feet above sea level. The magenta color represents flights that are 1,000 to 1,500 feet above sea level.

More studies, more meetings, and continued cooperation – that’s what federal aviation officials told residents, pilots and politicians who attended a public meeting Monday night about recommendations to cut helicopter noise in Los Angeles.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) called for the meeting last week to discuss a report issued by the Federal Aviation Administration on its recommendations to quiet chopper noise in Los Angeles County.

The report suggested that helicopter routes and altitudes be reviewed to see if modifications can be made. At the meeting, David Suomi, Acting Western-Pacific regional administrator for the FAA, emphasized the regulatory agency’s preferred approach for voluntary rules instead of enforcing new rules. 

“We are convinced that the robust collaborative process between community representatives and helicopter cooperators has the highest likelihood of success,” he said.

The tension was palpable many times during the meeting with audience members shouting at pilots or FAA representatives while they spoke. Some residents said they feel voluntary restrictions will have no teeth and will be impossible to enforce.

Bob Anderson heads up an effort by neighborhood associations that are against helicopter noise. Their group is called the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Noise Coalition. He doesn’t like that the FAA recommendations weighed how restrictions would hurt helicopter business but not homeowners’ financial interests.

“The report focuses solely on negative economic impacts on pilots and operators and does not even consider economic impacts on residents, property values, communities and schools,” Anderson said.

The FAA pointed to L.A.’s unique geography and climate as another wrinkle in solving the helicopter noise problem. Suomi said Los Angeles is the country’s most congested and complicated air space. Sliding a helicopter path over or raising flight altitudes could easily bump into fixed-wing aircraft space.

“It underscores the challenges that we have in trying to affect change,” Sumoi said.

The FAA representatives showed complicated maps of aircraft flight paths shooting from one end of Los Angeles to the other. They looked more like abstract art with bright green and magenta squiggly lines. Another map showed one-day of helicopter flights in Los Angeles with estimated altitudes that range from zero feet to 1,500 feet above sea level.

Sandy Gidmet, of hilly Lake Hollywood, said altitudes should be tailored for each area, if they can be.

“I would like to see some kind of regulation where they have to be so-many-feet off the ground and they have to follow the topography,” she said.

FAA representatives said that is a possibility, but more data is needed before mandatory restrictions are set on altitudes or flight paths.

Elizabeth Ray is vice president of air traffic control at the FAA’s mission support department. She said the agency doesn’t really know what helicopter operators are in the air, when or where.

“The players are definitely unknown,” she said. “We don’t know who all of these operators are and what they are doing but that would be the point – to pull them together to talk about the hotspots.”

A “hotspot” can be defined as an area that tends to attract a lot of helicopter flyovers or hovering. The Hollywood sign is an easy example or I-405 Freeway at the Sepulveda Pass, two years ago, a.k.a Carmageddon. It was that traffic event that set the helicopter noise relief effort in motion.

Identifying these “hotspots” could lead to path modifications, altitude requirements or no-fly zones applied to certain areas. It’s at the center of one of the FAA’s recommendations: to create a centralized noise complaint system.

Right now, there isn’t a centralized place to file a complaint against a helicopter. People must figure out whether the violation was alleged to have come from a media helicopter, private helicopter, or police agency and lodge a complaint with that entity.

The centralized complaint system has won support from both residents and helicopter pilots and operators. Larry Welk, president of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, proposed a system to track helicopter noise with a hotline that would need about $20,000 a year to run.

 “It would be something that would be a valuable tool whether there’s legislation or not,” Welk said.

Residents at the meeting expressed concern that once a “hotspot” is identified, only voluntary restrictions would be issued, not mandatory ones.

Mandatory helicopter flight restrictions have been introduced in places like Long Island in New York. But the FAA representatives said only one of two flight paths identified on Long Island is mandatory and only for a two-year test period. They added that only came about after voluntary rules were tried first.

The meeting wrapped up with a long line of more than 20 people wanting one-minute of public comment time to vent about pesky helicopters in their neighborhood.

Mike Shapiro, also from Lake Hollywood, found the exit before that part of the meeting began.

“Why can’t they fly over Forest Lawn cemetery,” he said. “They’re not going to bother anybody there.”

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