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FAA sets new rules for airspace over Manhattan

A video shot by a tourist shows a

A video shot by a tourist shows a small plane soaring over the Hudson River before clipping a helicopter, sending them both plummeting toward the water. Credit: NBC News

New rules setting up two airspace corridors over the Hudson River will go into effect Thursday, a development stemming from the deaths of nine people in a collision last August of a tourist helicopter and light plane, officials said Monday.

Randy Babbitt, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, told reporters Monday that the new rules require local flights to stay under 1,300 feet when flying off the west side of Manhattan and that pilots keep to airspeeds under 140 knots, or less than 161 miles per hour.

The airspace under the new rules is layered into two consistent levels, unlike the current setup, which shifts by about 500 at one point. Under the rules, one level of airspace runs to 1,000 feet for tourist helicopters, seaplanes and medevac flights. The second level, from 1,000 feet to 1,300 feet, is for flights transiting through the area.

For both levels, air traffic controllers aren't required. Pilots must turn on anti-collision and navigation lights and announce their position to other pilots on a specific radio frequency, said Babbitt. The special zones run from about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to a point halfway between the George Washington and Tappan Zee bridges, said the FAA. Northbound flights must stay on the river's Manhattan side while southbound flights must stay close to New Jersey. Commercial aircraft flying above 1,300 feet to 2,000 feet remain under the control of air traffic control terminals at major area airports and aren't affected by the rules, said Babbitt.

"These changes will define separate corridors for aircraft operating locally and those flying along the Hudson River area," said Babbitt.

Rules for the East River, which were adopted in 2006 following the fatal crash of a single-engine plane flown by Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle into an apartment building, will also be made permanent, said Babbitt.

The new rules, which take affect Thursday morning, were applauded by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was involved in their creation. But a number of politicians, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), were critical.

"While we appreciate the FAA's continued focus on closing this serious, gaping hole in air safety . . . unfortunately these rules leave the hole too wide open," said Schumer in a statement. "Not to require flight plans, nor have controllers in charge of airspace below 1,000 feet means that flights will still be able to crisscross the skies over the Hudson River unmonitored."

Babbitt acknowledged to reporters in a conference call that no air traffic controllers will direct flights under the special 1,300 foot ceiling, citing lack of resources. But he said similar requirements have worked well at other air corridors where visual flight rules are in effect, such as the area around the Grand Canyon.

However, Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer said air traffic control was needed for the Hudson River corridor.

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the mayor was sticking to his September statement, made when the FAA first proposed the rules.

"I'll ride with whatever the FAA judgment is in terms of making the city safer," Bloomberg said then.

Babbitt mentioned that the agency has proposed the firings of an air traffic controller from Long Island, Carlyle Turner, and a supervisor at Teterboro Airport for rule violations that had nothing to do with the Aug. 8 accident. Both are being paid while they appeal their proposed termination, said an FAA spokeswoman.

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