Chopped Choppers Chop Jobs
Reduction in NYC helicopter tours could leave pilots adrift in a difficult job market
The pilots flying helicopter tours around the New York City skyline might be out of work in the coming months, due to a planned 50 percent reduction in helicopter tourism flights in the city.
“A small number of pilots, maybe dozens at most, will lose their jobs, no doubt about it,” said Lyn Burks, editor in chief of the monthly helicopter magazine and job website Rotorcraft Pro.
Last year, more than 59,000 tourism helicopter flights took off from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, about a five-minute walk east of the South Ferry Terminal. New York City residents and Council members have been complaining for years about the noise, smog and security risks they claim the tourism helicopters bring to the city. The new reduction agreement requires that the five helicopter tourism companies will stop offering flights on Sundays by April 1st, then reduce their total flights by 20 percent by June, and achieve a 50 percent reduction by January 2017. All that reduction will mean less revenue for the companies to pay pilots, whose job market has hit some turbulence lately.
“Hundreds of helicopter pilots are being laid off and going to other sectors like medevac, firefighting, corporate,” said Burks. He explained that lower oil prices mean oil companies are shutting down oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, which means those companies no longer need as many helicopter pilots ferrying workers to and from the rigs as they used to. In addition, the U.S. military laid off 900 more pilots in the past two years after retiring the Kiowa scout helicopter program. “So you have a fairly large supply of pilots who are now looking for jobs in a market that has fewer jobs than it did two years ago,” Burks said.
“A small number of pilots, maybe dozens at most, will lose their jobs, no doubt about it.”Lyn Burks
“Those medevac companies would call back and say that the insurance companies would not hire me without 2000 flight hours.”Chad Weaver
Chad Weaver flies helicopter tours in New York City. But less than two years ago, he was one of those pilots scrambling for a job. Weaver flew Black Hawks for the U.S. army in Iraq and Korea until he was laid off in 2012 due to defense budget cuts. He was surprised when the 1,500 flight hours he gathered in the military would not open doors onto medevac choppers like he thought they would.
“It turns out between 2006 and 2013 the hours went up,” Weaver said. “Those medevac companies would call back and say that the insurance companies would not hire me without 2,000 flight hours, so that the pilots would be more skilled.”
Weaver looked for jobs all over the country, but it took him 13 months to land one at Zip Aviation in April, 2014. He started as a line pilot, which is a bit like being a cab driver in the helicopter tourism and charter industries. They wait for jobs to come to them from the charter operations managers, who are the analogous dispatchers, if the dispatchers also drove the cabs.
“I made it to my 2,000 hours pretty quickly,” said Weaver, who is now a charter operations manager. “But I’m in a management positon now and I want to keep it that way. If I go to another company I don’t want to be just a line pilot and wait for someone to tell me when to fly.”
Weaver said that his management job is more secure than a line pilot’s, who he said are more likely to lose their jobs in the coming months. Based on two available pilot rosters, there are probably more than 30 people who fly tourism helicopters in New York City, though most of the helicopter companies would not respond to requests for exact numbers. According to a 2015 Rotorcraft Pro survey, most line pilots earn between $70,000 and $80,000 a year, and are usually paid more as they accumulate flight hours and become better pilots. Those salaries would be hard for the line pilots to lose, and the helicopter tourism companies in New York City would not allow them to speak to NYCityLens. However, Weaver seemed certain that “there will be people losing their jobs,” he said.
For those unlucky flyers, Burks—the Rotorcraft Pro editor—explained that the industry with the most available piloting jobs was Helicopter Air Ambulance, the new industry term for medevac flights. “However,” he said, “for a pilot who lives in New York they might not want to live in rural Kentucky or freezing Minnesota where a job is available.”
It’s not just the pilots who are worried. Walk by the South Ferry Terminal or down the Battery Park Boardwalk and you will encounter a dozen men and women selling tickets for boat and helicopter tours. One of them is Malcolm Jones, who has been supervising ticket agents for Star Tours for six years.
“If that’s what residents want, we’ve got to do that,” Jones said, when asked about the flight reduction. “But they’re taking money from us and we’re trying to feed our families.” Jones is paid by commission, and less flights will mean less income for him and his colleagues. He said he did not have a plan to find a job elsewhere. “Nothing I can do,” he said, “except work hard the six days we can work.”
"It was worthwhile, but you don't miss what you don't know."
Jill Brady, tourist
New York isn’t the only place where helicopter companies are losing altitude. Last fall, the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Noise Coalition filed a petition to the Federal Aviation Administration for better helicopter regulations. The regulations would set a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet for non-emergency helicopters and require news helicopters to pool their coverage. At the Grand Canyon, which hosts the largest concentration of tour helicopters in the world, the National Park Service made a deal in 2012 with the Federal Aviation Administration that required the tour companies to buy quieter helicopter and to fly them less often.
“Attacks on tourism [and] efforts to cut down helicopters in New York City is nothing new,” said Burks. “This is the most successful effort recently, though.”
How do the tourists feel about the reduction?
“It was a good way to see the city,” said Ruby Allen, visiting from Bristol, England with her companion, Kelvin Hole. “But we wouldn’t have bothered if there were less flights and a longer wait,” added Hole. “And we would have come to New York anyway.”
“It was worthwhile,” said Jill Brady, visiting from Liverpool, England. “But you don’t miss what you don’t know.”