Open-door helicopter flights may no longer take off from New York City’s major downtown heliport, officials announced Wednesday, weeks after one such aircraft plunged into the East River, killing all five passengers.
The rule’s impact appears moot, however, since “no doors-off flights presently depart” from the privately managed Downtown Manhattan Heliport, the city’s Economic Development Corporation said in a news release. “This new amendment ensures that practice will be codified as permanent policy.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, also already suspended doors-off flights in light of the wreck.
What’s more, the new rule would not have affected the doomed flight that spurred its implementation, city officials acknowledged. Operated by Liberty Helicopters for the tour company FlyNYON, the 30-minute flight took off from a heliport in Kearny, New Jersey, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB.
“Is there any hope or any conversation that we could get our friends in New Jersey at the table to mirror what we’ve done here?” New York City Council Member Paul Vallone asked the development department’s aviation director Wednesday during a committee meeting.
“We’re hoping, obviously, the FAA develops additional safety protocols as a result of the accident and does a further investigation that leads to safety standards for all operators operating in the region,” David Hopkins replied.
A person familiar with the heliport’s policies said the move only codified what long had been an implied rule that aimed to make the facility more cost-efficient. Doors-off flights haven’t been offered because they require more time – so customers can watch a safety video – and more manpower, which would mean fewer customers per day and less revenue, this person said.
Federal officials suspend doorless flights
Doors-off excursions have grown popular, especially among millennials, who want the chance to snap breathtaking, unobstructed photos to post on social media. Popular in New York, they also operate in other major cities, the Grand Canyon, remote Hawaiian locales and other scenic spots.
In the wake of last month’s crash, the FAA issued a nationwide order suspending “doors off” flights involving “restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency.”
Days later, the NTSB issued its own urgent safety recommendation calling for the FAA to ban commercial flights’ use of harness systems that don’t allow for easy release during emergencies.
The federal agencies seem to have keyed in on a critical difference between doors-off flights, which strap in passengers with harnesses, and traditional helicopter tours, which use seat belts.
Harnesses, which might seem safer to untrained thrill-seekers, also can prove harder to escape in an emergency. Such was the case during the March 11 wreck, in which the passengers drowned because they couldn’t break free from their harnesses, an NTSB report found. The pilot freed himself and survived.
In detailing the new doors-off ban, Hopkins explained that the city owns two heliports: the downtown site, located at Pier 6 and run by Saker Aviation; and a facility at East 34th Street, run by Atlantic Aviation, Hopkins said. A third heliport, at West 30th Street, is run by a state entity, he said.
The three facilities last year handled about 57,000 landings, with almost 60% of that traffic at the downtown site, which hosts all tour flights, he said. Tour flights generate $2 million to $3 million annually for the city, said Alexander Brady, another development corporation official.
CNN’s Wesley Bruer, Rachel Cao, Melanie Schuman and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.