Menendez, Schumer Call for Greater Tourist Helicopter Safety

Menendez, Schumer Call for Greater Tourist Helicopter Safety

Senators urge FAA to close safety loophole allowing chopper company to continue dangerous behavior

NEW YORK, N.Y. – U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) today stood at the site of a deadly 2018 tourist chopper crash in the East River that originated in Kearny, N.J., and killed five passengers to call for federal action to close a legal loophole that allows a tourist chopper company to circumvent strict safety standards. FlyNYON, the operator under two separate federal investigations for the March 2018 crash, offers dangerous doors-off flights to individuals and their pets who wish to dangle above New York City. 

“These tourist helicopter flights are not just a nuisance for those dealing with the incessant noise on the ground, but, after a series of deadly crashes, they’re a potential death trap in the sky,” said. Sen. Menendez.  “The FAA has an obligation to make sure tourist chopper flights are either operated safely or grounded.  The idea that passengers and their pets are being strapped in and dangled out of open doors hundreds of feet above ground without strong safeguards in place is astonishing, downright cruel for the animals, and a tragedy waiting to happen.” 

“It is outrageous that despite the death of five innocent people in a dangerous doors-off chopper flight and two active federal investigations into lapsed safety that FlyNYON is still operating doors-off flights at desperate discounts. But it is a sheer jaw-drop to know that the same company is now strapping in dogs for people to snap pictures of while the animals all but dangle high above New York skies, experiencing the sound of the rotors and who knows what other cruel things,” said Sen. Schumer. “Strapping in dogs for dangerous doors-off flights over New York is just totally repugnant.”

At today’s press conference, the senators outlined their letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in which they explain that FlyNYON derives its federal license to fly and operate by claiming to be an “aerial photography” helicopter company that caters to industry photographers, not amateur thrill-seekers. Flights characterized as “aerial photography work” follow fewer safety standards and allows dangerous doors-off flights to continue legally while the federal investigations ensue.

“As these doors-off helicopters flights are marketed and sold to consumers equipped with smartphones—and not professional photographers with specialized training—common sense suggests that they should be considered air tours for sightseeing under FAA regulations,” the senators wrote in the letter to FAA administrator Steve Dickson. “Allowing operators to falsely characterize flights as an “aerial photography work” to evade local flight rules raises serious safety concerns and is simply unacceptable. While the FAA has not made a final determination, it has stated there were indications that the exception did not apply to the March 11, 2018 flight.”

Representatives from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the National Humane Society joined the senators today in calling on FlyNYON to end their flights that allow dogs to hang thousands of feet high above New York. 

According to reports, sightseeing and tourist flights are listed as the third leading category of fatal helicopter accidents.  In 2016, the overall helicopter accident rate was 3.19 per 100,000 flight hours. In 2016, there were 106 helicopter accidents, including 17 that were fatal. Since August 2009, the NTSB has investigated 19 helicopter accidents in New York, not including the most recent East River crash.

Sen. Menendez has long pushed for greater helicopter safety in the metropolitan area, including calling for a complete ban on tourist helicopter flights over the Hudson River. Following the 2009 Hudson River tourist helicopter crash in Hoboken, N.J., that killed nine, Sen. Menendez worked with the FAA and local stakeholders to identify stricter helicopter and aircraft traffic safety standards, flight levels and hours of operation.  In 2013, Sen. Menendez successfully pushed the FAA to restrict tourist helicopters operating out of Paulus Hook in Jersey City.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

 

Dear Administrator Dickson:  

We write to request that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiate a rulemaking to enhance the safety of certain doors-off helicopter operations and close the regulatory loophole that allows operators to evade safety rules that restrict certain air tour flights over New York. 

On March 11, 2018, a doors-off aerial photography flight operated by Liberty Helicopters on behalf of FlyNYON tragically crashed into the East River in New York City, killing five passengers on board. The crash raised serious concerns about the safety of certain doors-off helicopter flights for compensation or hire.

In response to this accident, the FAA issued an Emergency Order prohibiting the use of supplemental passenger restraint systems in doors-off flight operations if they cannot be released quickly in an emergency. The FAA also initiated a rulemaking to permanently ban these types of restraint systems. In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board initiated an investigation, and the Department of Transportation Inspector General began an audit of the FAA’s process for review, approval, and oversight of supplemental restraints.

While we applaud these actions, we remain concerned that certain helicopter operators continue to exploit a loophole in FAA regulations that may pose increased risks to passengers. While the operator of the March 11, 2018 flight was authorized to conduct operations under FAA’s less-stringent Part 91 regulations, it appears that the flight was conducted under an exception specified in FAA regulation §119.1(e)(4)(iii) for “aerial work operations – aerial photography or survey” to evade local New York City rules that restrict certain air tour flights. Under FAA regulations, however, the aerial photography exception does not apply if the primary purpose of a flight is sightseeing. 

As these doors-off helicopters flights are marketed and sold to consumers equipped with smartphones—and not professional photographers with specialized training—common sense suggests that they should be considered air tours for sightseeing under FAA regulations. Allowing operators to falsely characterize flights as an “aerial photography work” to evade local flight rules raises serious safety concerns and is simply unacceptable. While the FAA has not made a final determination, it has stated there were indications that the exception did not apply to the March 11, 2018 flight.

Accordingly, we request that the FAA close this regulatory loophole and initiate a rulemaking to determine what additional rules may be needed beyond applicable aircraft operating and airworthiness requirements to enhance of the safety of doors-off helicopter flights for compensation or hire. 

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. 

Sincerely,

 

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