Opinion: Five more reasons to ban sightseeing helicopters

null

But he has shown no fury — or any real sign of displeasure — over a much more dangerous and environmentally damaging means of vehicular tourism, sightseeing by helicopter.

NEW YORK — It is one of the maddening paradoxes of New York City’s recent political history that Mayor Bill de Blasio came to power with a righteous rage to ban horse carriages in Central Park (a prohibition he ultimately failed to enact)

But he has shown no fury — or any real sign of displeasure — over a much more dangerous and environmentally damaging means of vehicular tourism, sightseeing by helicopter.

The risks of the practice were clarified again last Sunday, when a chartered helicopter crashed into the East River, killing all five of its passengers and sparing only the pilot.

To facilitate in-flight photography, the helicopter doors were removed, and the four men and one woman on the tour were strapped so tightly into their seats that they were given knives to extricate themselves in the event of an accident.

That federal aviation rules allow passengers access to sharp objects in aircraft flying around the perimeter of major cities, when mothers of toddlers are still removing their Uggs at the airport, remains its own enduring mystery.

It has been decades now since advocates for a quieter and less polluted city have railed against the helicopter industry, which came into tragic disfavor most dramatically in 1977, when a rotor blade broke off a helicopter that had been ferrying people to Kennedy Airport from the roof of the Pan Am Building in Manhattan, killing five people, one of them a woman walking down Madison Avenue. After a crash in the East River in 2011, various politicians and members of the City Council called for a ban on tourist helicopters, pointing out that since 1983 there had been 28 crashes in New York, with at least 19 fatalities. The ban never materialized. Instead, two years ago, the city moved to reduce the number of tourist-helicopter flights around Manhattan by half — to 30,000 per year.

That’s more than 80 flights every day — an astonishingly high number given that the mayor has mythologized himself as a national leader in climate change. Earlier this year, he announced that city pension funds would divest from companies profiting from the fossil fuel business and that the city would sue five oil companies for reparations, essentially, connected to the damage fossil fuels have inflicted on the city’s ecosystem. It is as if a class-action suit were filed against Shake Shack for causing obesity while the plaintiffs were quietly deep-frying slices of apple pie every morning at home for breakfast. The Airbus AS350, one of the most popular tourist helicopters — it was the model involved in the crash last weekend — produces 43 times the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per hour than the average car.

For several years now, the city has justified helicopter tourism as a vital means of revenue. Its Economic Development Corp., which manages the downtown heliport from which tourist helicopters take off and land, has said that the economic impact to the city amounts to $50 million a year. But that figure comes directly from the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council, a lobbying group made up of five helicopter-tour providers.

And it is a figure that takes into account the hotel and restaurant expenses that tourists accrue while they are in the city, as if to suggest that they were coming to New York solely for the purpose of flying around Manhattan in a helicopter for 15 minutes, rather than, say, to see “Hamilton” for the third time. Advocates of a tourist-helicopter ban have long taken issue with the figure. As Adrian Benepe, the city’s former parks commissioner put it to me, “It’s just completely insane.”

The city has also argued that the tourist-helicopter industry in New York supports more than 260 jobs, as if that were an impressive figure, outweighing the obvious downsides, in a strong economy with a local unemployment rate of just over 4 percent. The city has said that it will not make any decisions about the future of tourist helicopters until an investigation of Sunday’s crash is complete. But in a more impressive show of judgment, Sen. Chuck Schumer and various local congressional representatives called for a suspension of these flights at least until the causes of the accident could be understood.

In New Jersey and around the country, a growing movement to end helicopter tourism is fomenting. In February, three British tourists were killed when a sightseeing helicopter crashed over the Grand Canyon; environmentalists have long complained of the noise helicopter tours produce in national parks. That they cost hundreds of dollars for just a few minutes of thrill-seeking, forcing tourists literally to look down on the rest of us, make them an almost-parodic symbol for the age of inequality. And perhaps that too is just another reason to get rid of them.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

GINIA BELLAFANTE © 2018 The New York Times

%d bloggers like this: