East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott in 2016.

East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott in 2016. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Visitors arriving in East Hampton via the town airport spend more than the average traveler, but still account for just 1% to 3% of the money spent in the town, according to a new study commissioned by the town as officials consider shuttering the facility.

The Wainscott airport has generated thousands of quality of life complaints in recent years while supporters say the facility keeps wealthy second-home owners invested in the town. The five-member East Hampton Town board can opt to close the airport after federal mandates expire in September, but none have publicly said their mind is made up.

The study, performed by the economic development firm HR&A which has offices in five cities, looks at the economic impacts of three options: keeping the status quo, modifying which operations are allowed at the airport, and closing the facility. The findings were presented during a four-hour May 11 virtual town work session on airport issues.

Bill O’Connor, an attorney with the Palo Alto, California-based Cooley LLP, which has been advising the town on airport matters, also spoke during the work session and separately presented the option of closing the airport for some time and then reopening it with different regulations.

Less than 1% of visitors arrive in East Hampton via the airport, the study found. Of the 24,000 visitors who arrived via the airport in 2019, about 14,000 went on to destinations in East Hampton with most of the remainder traveling to Southampton Town.

Air visitors spent an estimated $7 to $20 million in 2019, or just 1% to 3% of all East Hampton sales that year. Total airport operations and passenger spending generates $13 million to $26 million annually, the report said.

An estimated 48% of commercial aircraft visitors would continue to visit East Hampton if commercial flights were no longer available, according to the study. Those who would not come back would reduce total spending by $3 to $7 million. Under that scenario the 100 to 230 jobs associated with the airport would be reduced to 65 to 100.

The study does not detail the economic impact of closing the facility completely as further analysis is needed to determine how doing so could increase property values.

The study's findings were much more conservative than those of a February report funded by the East Hampton Community Alliance, a nonprofit pilot group. That report said the facility generated $78 million annually for the South Fork economy and supports more than 850 jobs.

Airport critic Patricia Currie, of Noyac, said the town report "places the earlier aviation groups ‘hypothetical’ economic study where it belongs: in the vertical file."

Executive director Erin King-Sweeney said the alliance's economic analyst is reviewing the town study and will comment later.

Meanwhile the group plans to host a monthly forum on the issue with the first virtual session scheduled for June 22. It has also created a "pilot pledge" featuring nonbinding rules for pilots to be good neighbors.

"I really firmly believe that they [the board] want to come to some sort of reasonable solution that can satisfy reasonable people," she said.

  • Of the 1.7 million East Hampton visitors, less than 1% arrive via the airport
  • An estimated 24,000 people arrived at the airport in 2019, 14,000 of which went on to destinations in East Hampton
  • Airport visitors spend between $500 and $1,300 per trip
  • The airport supports 100 to 230 jobs and generates $13 million to $26 million in East Hampton economic output

Source: East Hampton Airport Preliminary Economic Impact Analysis, HR&A