Helicopter tours to continue

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 9:15am
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Members of state airport management agencies met with Block Island residents at Town Hall on Monday, April 17. Seated from left are RIAC Aeronautics Inspector Jim Warcup, Jeffrey Wiggin, XXX T.F. Green Airport; Alan Andrade, Senior Vice President of RIAC; First Warden Ken Lacoste; Dave Lucas, Quonset Airport; and Jeremy Nielsen, Executive Director of AvPorts, which manages the Block Island Airport. Photos by Lars Trodson

The theme of the meeting was “mitigation not elimination,” and even if that message was clear it did not necessarily placate the 25 or so residents that had gathered at Town Hall to express their frustrations with the noise generated by the helicopter tours that started last summer. Residents met with various representatives from airport operations agencies on Monday, April 17.

Jim Warcup, the Aeronautics Inspector for Rhode Island Airport Corporation, repeated the “mitigation” phrase as often as he could, while stressing that RIAC was working closely with Heliblock, the company operating the tours, to lessen the noise that the helicopters generate. But he also stressed that RIAC could not stop the tours; such decisions were outside its purview. “I don’t think we’re ever going to eliminate aircraft noise on Block Island,” Warcup said. 

Alan Andrade, the Senior Vice President of Operations and Maintenance for RIAC, also stated more than once that the state agencies overseeing local airports must follow the standards and guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

“Our hands are tied,” Andrade said, referring to the fact that RIAC operated under what are known as “grant assurances” by the FAA, which they must abide by if they receive federal funding. 

Warcup was one of five senior representatives from RIAC and AvPorts — the firm that manages the state’s five smaller airports, including Block Island’s — to talk about a variety of issues, not the least of which was the helicopter tours. Also in attendance was State Sen. Susan Sosnowski and Rep. Blake Filippi, both of whom represent Block Island in the General Assembly.

What the representatives also made clear was that Heliblock would not be operating two helicopters at the airport this upcoming summer, as some residents feared. The contract with the operator, which is still being drawn up, will make that clear. But the representatives did say that another operator could submit an application to RIAC to operate out of the airport. “My recommendation is we can only accommodate one,” said Warcup.

Warcup said that the tours flew a total of 1,000 people throughout the summer, and after hearing a litany of complaints from residents, he drew up a series of recommendations for flight patterns and flight times that the HeliBlock owner had agreed to.

That was the first time that Andrade cautioned the crowd by saying “they have every right to operate an aircraft. One thing we all must understand is that the FAA has strict guidelines and enforcement over airspace operations that RIAC does not supercede. We can’t overstep that.”

One of the “grant assurances” Andrade mentioned was that RIAC could not impose “unjust discrimination against any aircraft operator. That’s the sticking point.” All guidelines and restrictions are general for all operators, and can not be tailored or imposed on any one specific carrier. “Your feedback is important, but we are unable to just stop operations because of the grant assurances we have,” Warcup said.

One of the voluntary guidelines that Warcup drew up stated that the helicopter tours should “avoid overflight of populated areas, funerals, schools, and wildlife areas.” 

Town Councilor Martha Ball asked how RIAC was “defining wildlife areas,” referencing that almost 50 percent of the island was conserved property, and could be defined as “wildlife area.” Warcup said he was specifically referencing areas recognized as wildlife areas by the Federal Government, which is the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge located at the north end of the island.

Homeowner Jake Kramer said the list of voluntary guidelines did “not at all address the fundamental issue, which is unlimited operations. Most of these [guidelines] were in place last year. No one is saying ‘no helicopters.’” But Kramer said his issue was “three [tours] an hour for 10 hours a day.” 

“We’re doing what we can to mitigate it,” said Warcup. 

“I appreciate all that RIAC has done, and I mean that, but if we’re at a point where we’ve done all that we can do, then let’s stop talking,” Kramer said. 

Neighbor Jim McCormick wanted to know if the times the helicopter flew could be restricted. 

“The worst time is dinnertime. You can’t carry on a conversation,” said McCormick. “Can the times be limited?” 

“I can make the promise that I’ll ask him,” said Warcup, meaning the helicopter operator. “If we ask for nighttime restrictions, we’re pushing those grant assurance issues.”

Andrade and others also said the situation may take care of itself. He said that Heliblock was looking to do more tours out of Westerly. “His intent is to operate more out of the mainland at this point,” said Andrade. This prompted Edie Blane, sitting in the audience, to quip, “Does Watch Hill know about that?”

In the end, Warcup, Andrade and the other representatives said they would take any complaint seriously, but Warcup cautioned that there was a difference between something that was “annoying” and “criminal.” He said that, “I don’t want everybody to become the police, but please contact us.” 

RIAC Chief of Police Leo Messier also provided an FAA noise abatement number: 1-202-267-3521. 

Parking and landing fees

Two years ago, the company that manages the Block Island Airport, AvPorts, unexpectedly raised airport landing fees in an effort to increase revenue at the small, local airport. Reaction from pilots was swift and negative, causing the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to rescind the new landing fee schedule. Since that time, the town, as well as RIAC and AvPorts, have been seeking ways to increase revenue.

Resident Renée Meyer stated that AvPorts Block Island office closes at 4 p.m., thereby allowing any pilot who lands a plane after that time to avoid paying the landing fee. “Why should some pilots get a free ride?” Meyer said. “They’re gaming the system.”

AvPorts Executive Director Jeremy Nielsen said the landing fees collected during that time may not cover the salary of the person staffing the office, but he did say that “We’ll take that into consideration for the next fiscal year.” It was pointed out that while the airport may look busy, Rhode Island-based pilots do not pay the landing fee, so revenues may be lower than some might think.

Another possible revenue stream considered was parking fees, particularly for those individuals who use the parking lot for long-term use. Town Facilities Manager Sam Bird said a good portion of the short-term parking was done by contractors, and if they were charged a fee, that extra cost would be passed on to locals who had hired those contractors. “They’ll take the hit on that,” said Bird.

Other possible revenue sources talked about were boat storage or self-storage containers located at the airport, but both of those ideas were in the initial stages of discussion.