Dan Rattiner's Stories

Are They Waving? Looking Down as You Approach East Hampton Airport

Despite community fury over noise, we were nominated for the World's Most Scenic Airports 2019.

Now here’s quite a surprise. While aircraft landing at East Hampton Airport make so much noise, interfering with the lives of the people living beneath, it has now been nominated as one of the best airports in the world in 2019 for its scenic view out the window of your aircraft as you approach. It’s a contest.

A group of prominent passengers flying with PrivateFly, a jet charter brokerage service, were asked to select their favorite airports to land at. They nominated 31, and one of them is East Hampton Airport—you look down and you see the long white beaches and the mansions and the people shaking their fists up at the planes—and now it’s time for the public to vote.

Go to privatefly.com. There you will see the 31 chosen nominees, including photos of the views out the windows. Click on the one you want to send to the semi-finals, the top 10 [Voting ended on February 28]. Then a winner will be chosen. Best aircraft approach in the world.

I wondered how the winner got chosen, and I called and spoke to a woman named Sarah Cane at Zapwater Communications in Santa Monica, who is a publicist for this competition. She did not know how the ultimate winner was chosen, but she did remember the winning airport in 2018, when East Hampton was not on the list. It was Donegal Airport in Ireland. She said if I had any more questions, she could try to answer them. That seemed about it for me. So I thanked her and moved on.

It was interesting to me that she was working at a firm in Santa Monica, because Santa Monica looms large here in East Hampton as the poster child of how to defeat the FAA in hand-to-hand combat over stopping the noise. Santa Monica Airport has solved its problem. The good people of Santa Monica voted to shut the airport down. And that is happening. Last aircraft service out of there will take place in 2028, after which that airport will become a park.

East Hampton has paid lawyers to fight the FAA to get the noise tamped down or the hours of operation shortened so people below can get some sleep, or maybe—a drastic step—get the airport to cease operations. But all town decisions got reversed.

For instance, in May 2017, the Town Board met after spending a good deal of money on a law firm that tried and failed to get an agreement with the FAA, agreed to part ways with that firm and instead hire a new international firm called Morrison Foerster, which, a Southampton Press reporter wrote, “was renowned for having won the City of Santa Monica the right to close down a small town-owned airport there through a similar FAA application.”

But two years later, the East Hampton Town Board hired another California firm, and this past week got a detailed report from him at their weekly town board meeting. He is Bill O’Connor, of the firm Cooley LLP, and an article about his report in The Independent is headlined “Attorney Who Took on FAA for Santa Monica Urges East Hampton to Play Tough. Town Told It Could Close Airport.”

“[O’Connor]…knows a thing or two about shutting down airports for unhappy municipalities. He was the lead lawyer in a case in Santa Monica which after years of litigation…”

At the meeting, according to the newspaper, O’Connor warned the town board there were no guarantees of success. But he suggested closing the airport and then negotiating acceptable terms to have it reopen. He also advocated getting help on the federal level, also meeting with the Eastern Region Helicopter Council. This should be considered in addition to other things, he said.

You know, I’ve been writing stories in this newspaper for 60 years. And I’ve been following East Hampton Airport’s progress through the years. When I got here, the terminal consisted of a broken-down World War I barracks building for a waiting room—it had been trucked over after the military base in Yaphank closed. I think mules towed it to the site.

Around 1968, I wrote a story about how they needed more space and so had put an addition on the barracks building by asking a local farmer to bring over a chicken coop they could attach, which they did. Mice lived in the terminal building then. A framed black-and-white photo of it from the 1930s hung on the wall in the waiting room. The runway was grass. Then in 1989, Donald Trump opened a scheduled helicopter service to New York out of the place. Black choppers with TRUMP in giant gold letters on the sides idled noisily by the terminal, but that service ended two years later.

I also wrote a story in 2016 about how I flew to Santa Monica one morning, spoke to the airport manager out there in the afternoon and learned how they made their agreement to close the airport, and then flew back that evening.

But that was a lie. I was actually there for five days visiting grandkids whose mom and pop live in Santa Monica. So it wasn’t just one day I was out there. I meant it to be funny, saying I had done this all in one day. Call it literary license.

Yes, they are closing it down. But there is a reason for it that is unique to this airport. The lawyers were just able to help it along.

Santa Monica Airport was founded about the same time that East Hampton Airport was. It was not originally an airport, it was an airplane manufacturing company called Douglas, which eventually sold the land to Santa Monica and then leased the property back from them as a tenant, and turned out military aircraft during World War II. When built, they’d fly out of there on a runway. Douglas moved in 1973, ending its lease with the Town of Santa Monica, which subsequently ran it as a pretty good-sized airport with four or five big buildings, terminals and hangers.

In 1987, the City of Santa Monica signed an agreement with the FAA that limited noise to under 95 decibels and allowed curfews for times the airport would close. It was an open-ended agreement. Forever and ever.

Three years later, in 1990, the FAA wrote new standardized agreements for all airports around the country (including East Hampton) with no expiration date. They probably considered it a mistake to have had no expiration date for noise and curfew as they had signed in 1987. Eventually, the FAA agreed the 1987 agreement preceded the 1990 one and so was grandfathered in, but they declared that earlier agreement was only for 25 years. Santa Monica disputed this. It went to court. It stayed there a long time. Soon Santa Monica, which owns the property, said they didn’t want the airport there anymore. And with that, a compromise was reached. The Santa Monica Airport could close, but it would be in 2028. The city agreed to that, too.

The point is that East Hampton’s agreement is forever and ever. Everybody’s agreement is forever and ever. But the FAA made mistakes with Santa Monica.

The FAA has been challenged around the country many times about forever and ever, and the Feds have always backed the FAA. How do you have standardized information, equipment and agreements in airports around the country and expect the aircraft industry to survive? Look up the rules for each one? Nope. They have all got to be the same.

I think East Hampton should stop hiring Santa Monica lawyers, thinking what they did for Santa Monica is what they could do today. The FAA made a mistake there, I believe, and I don’t think they will make that one again.

I should note that I have personally landed and taken off at 7 of the 31 airports in the running to be #1, and I can tell you four are really scary.

At the airport in St. Maarten in the Caribbean, the planes come in low, just 30 feet above a beach filled with tourists waiting at the end of the runway who can almost reach up and touch the wheels of the big planes arriving. (Watch the YouTube video below.)

Saba is a tiny tip of a volcano, a three-mile-square island that sticks up out of the Caribbean, and the airport is so short that only STOL (short takeoff and landing) crafts can land there. The runway also has a hump in it.

At the airport in St. Thomas, when I was there, the runway ended at the foot of a steep cliff at the foot of a mountain. Planes would screech to a halt to keep from hitting the mountain or the cars on a public road by that cliff, and especially the gas station there. (On a second trip there, the gas station was gone. Kaboom, I suppose.)

At Cape Town, South Africa, you drop down suddenly over clouded Table Mountain for your landing. The same thing happens at Sofia, Bulgaria—but it didn’t make the list.

In East Hampton, you fly in over people shaking their fists.

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