New York's skies: safe or 'too congested'?

In the wake of Saturday's midair collision, seven New York lawmakers on Monday pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to enforce stricter flight rules in the Hudson River corridor.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
The fuselage of a helicopter is lifted onto a tarp near the location of a crash between a sight seeing helicopter and a small fixed wing airplane over the Hudson River, in New York, Monday.

The midair collision of a small airplane and a tourism helicopter over the Hudson River Saturday is opening the broader question of whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should regulate low-flying flights in busy urban corridors.

Advocates who want the FAA to take greater control say it's simply too crowded in some airspaces, such as New York or Los Angeles. They argue small planes and helicopters need to have transponders so they can be seen on radar, as well as collision-avoidance systems that warn pilots when the wander too near another aircraft. Moreover, they want pilots to file flight plans, just like pilots on large commercial craft.

Opponents maintain that one fatal accident over the Hudson River does not make the skies unsafe. They maintain the industry is already highly regulated, and the nation should wait to see what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends.

"I don't know if politicizing of the tragedy is the best way to go about this," says Robert Grotell, special adviser to the Eastern Region Helicopter Council.

Divers continued to search the Hudson River Monday for the last two bodies from the crash that killed nine people. The divers did appear to find the wreckage of the plane Monday afternoon. The NTSB is the leading the investigation of the incident.

In Manhattan, near the heliport where the helicopter had taken off Saturday, two members of Congress from New York and five local officials held a press conference Monday to call attention to the state of New York City's skies.

"Saturday's terrible crash is a tragic and powerful reminder of what we have known for some time – that New York's airspace is far too congested to be unregulated by the FAA," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He says the NTSB tells him the FAA does not have the legal authority to regulate the airspace under 1,100 feet.

The FAA says it does. For example, it banned fixed-wing aircraft from the East River corridor after a plane flown by former New York Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into a building in 2006.

The Hudson River corridor was specifically established as a way for small planes to fly north and south through the New York area using what are called "visual flight rules," says Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman. Otherwise, the planes would have to fly to Scranton, Pa., to go around the commercial air traffic.

"Almost every big city has these corridors to allow helicopters and other slow aircraft to operate," she says.

Once in the corridor, there are an "organized set of rules" just like the traffic rules on a highway, Ms. Brown says. And pilots are supposed to announce their location on a common radio frequency once they enter the airspace.

After 9/11, the FAA eliminated visual flight rules for Washington. However, when the FAA tried to make the rules permanent, it got 22,000 responses, most of them negative. "We took that into account and modified them," says Brown.

In New York, some local officials want a total ban on helicopter tourism flights. But city officials have argued the city needs to maintain its heliports so busy executives can fly in to conduct business.

In addition, the flights seem to be popular with tourists. Even after Saturday's accident, tourists waited at Zip Helicopter Services and Liberty Helicopter Monday to take short rides around New York.

Nadler says no one is sure how many flights buzz up and down the corridor: "It would be a good idea to find out."


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