New York City is considering a ban on helicopters that are “nonessential.” That word is an understatement for the category under discussion: while some small aircraft are needed in health or public safety emergencies — a person living in a remote area needs to get to a large urban hospital, the Coast Guard must rescue someone miles from shore — “nonessential” helicopters are those allowing tourists an aerial view of the city or, more obnoxiously, ferrying the rich out to the Hamptons, a location easily reached by train, car, or bus. Every month four thousand of these vehicles take off from publicly owned heliports on the Hudson River, tormenting New Yorkers with the noise and air pollution.
In recent years the noise from these ridiculous contraptions has increased dramatically. As Observer reported in June, the noise complaints about them never used to exceed one thousand, but in 2020, the city received ten thousand complaints and last year that number reached twenty six thousand.
It’s obviously intolerable. Numerous studies have also found it associated with what is called, in scientific jargon, “annoyance.” The noise pollution of “the chop” is even worse than annoying. Research also shows that helicopter noise, horribly deafening, causes stress, daytime sleep disturbance, loss of concentration, as well as physical health problems like hypertension. (New York City’s proposed ban does not include police helicopters, alas.) It mars some of our cherished parks, like Governor’s Island, which would otherwise be idyllic urban retreats. Of course, rich people buy second and third homes in quiet places, precisely to avoid the cacophony they create in cities. But as New York City transportation activist and thinker Charles Komanoff wrote last year, in arguing for the helicopter ban, “Quiet isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a luxury.”
Noise pollution has been proven to take a toll on wildlife — mammals, fish, and birds of all kinds, but especially waterfowl — as well as humans. But helicopters have other environmental effects that are even more serious. The urgency of the climate crisis alone justifies a ban: one helicopter idling emits the carbon equivalent of forty cars. Even worse, according to a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency study, helicopters are the biggest source of lead emissions, which have significantly declined otherwise. This fall, the EPA announced it was considering much tighter regulations on these aircraft for this reason. Lead is very dangerous for humans, especially for children’s physical and cognitive development. Not all of the helicopters flying over New York City are using lead fuel but many are.
Introduced by Brooklyn city councilmember Lincoln Restler (who was endorsed by several socialist elected officials in his 2021 bid for office, and whose district includes Greenpoint and Williamsburg, strongholds of New York City Democratic Socialists of America), the New York City bill is long overdue. Restler said on the city council floor, “Every day helicopters take off from public helipads to serve the rich few at the expense of our environment and our well-being.”
His ban is a model of what climate legislation should be: curbing the self-indulgence of the rich, while protecting the environment and everyone else’s quality of life.
The helicopter ban is a blueprint for how the Left should think about pleasure. The rich must be forced to curb their wasteful narcissism, as it comes as everyone else’s expense. Everyone else, on the other hand, deserves greater delight. We deserve to enjoy lush, quiet green spaces with thriving wildlife, along with the city’s best sounds: birdsong, exuberant R&B classics wafting from cars on a summer day, block parties, the clack of the subway. We also deserve the profound pleasure of breathing clean air on a crisp autumn morning, and the peace of a quiet ferry ride.
Local environmentalists — especially a single-issue coalition called Stop the Chop — have been advocating for the helicopter ban for several years, and they have some powerful allies. Last year, several Democratic congressional representatives from New York introduced federal legislation banning nonessential helicopters from several large cities. While it did not get far, Congress should be pressured to try again.
The helicopter bans are brilliant, but they are not enough: we also need a ban on private jets, which would take either federal action, state law, or regional cooperation (New York City couldn’t do this on its own, as the airports used in private flight are located outside the city). Private jets are increasingly targeted by climate activists. Unlike Old Masters paintings, also objects of climate ire, they’re excellent targets: a trip on a private jet emits four and a half to fourteen times as much as a flight on a commercial airline, and fifty times as much as a train trip.
Because it’s so expensive, this mode of transport is only used by the very rich, so reining it in has no downside for the 99 percent. Extinction Rebellion and other groups have been protesting at airports used by private jets, while other activists have been exposing their use by celebrities like Taylor Swift. France and Belgium just announced plans to heavily restrict and tax private jets, and the European Union has been considering action as well. It’s past time to bring this widely popular form of class war to the United States, but Restler’s proposed helicopter ban is a welcome step in the right direction.