Crash prompts calls for more scrutiny
Hawaii’s tour helicopter industry could face new regulatory head winds in the wake of Monday’s tragic helicopter crash, which killed all three people aboard when it went down in a dense Kailua neighborhood.
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Hawaii’s tour helicopter industry could face new regulatory head winds in the wake of Monday’s tragic
helicopter crash, which killed all three people aboard when it went down in a dense Kailua neighborhood.
Hawaii state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe Bay) has asked Hawaii’s federal delegation to urge the Federal Aviation Administration to ban all tour helicopter flights in Hawaii until the investigation into Monday’s crash concludes. Thielen also wants the delegation
to push the FAA to consider flight restrictions over residential neighborhoods, a move that Thielen says would be similar to what Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., did around 2012 when he got the FAA to
ban most helicopters from flying over Long Island.
“People in my district are very distraught. This was right over their homes, and elementary schools were just a spitting distance away,” Thielen said.
Thielen also plans to introduce two state bills next year: one that would direct the state Department of Transportation to limit ground permits for tour helicopters at state airports, and another that would instruct counties to create ground permit limits for helicopters using private airports.
“State lawmakers can’t control the air. We know that and FAA has smugly told us that, but we can control the land use,” Thielen said. “If we could control the land use, it would be a significant improvement — just like we saved the fisheries by limiting permits.”
Hawaii’s congressional delegation is closely monitoring the crash.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case issued the following statement: “While our thoughts today are with those who were lost and theirs, clearly there are major issues with tour helicopters throughout Hawaii that must be addressed, and my commitment is to pursue substantially increased regulation to assure public safety and quality of life.”
U.S. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono said, “My thoughts and aloha are with the families
of the victims in this terrible tragedy. My office is engaging with the appropriate
federal agencies as they conduct their investigation.”
If other lawmakers concur with Thielen, it wouldn’t be the first time that Hawaii’s air tour industry has faced increased federal scrutiny. In the 1990s the late Rep. Patsy Mink convened an Air Tour Surveillance Team to monitor complaints about aircraft noise and safety. Mink also introduced bills limiting flights over national parks and restricting altitudes. She also proposed federally regulating helicopter noise. Her legislative attempts followed a rash of fatal accidents — where some 30 people died aboard Hawaii sightseeing aircraft in a three-year period.
While not all of Mink’s efforts passed, she did succeed in getting federal authorities to begin cracking down on safety violations for air tours, and she got special provisions passed that required Hawaii air tours to fly at higher altitudes than tour companies in other states.
Mink’s work ensured that Hawaii has the nation’s strictest air tour rules, said Calvin Dorn, CEO of Paradise Helicopters. Hawaii air tour operators must fly 1,500 feet above the ground and can drop down as far
as 500 feet only with special authorization, he said.
In most cases outside of Hawaii, air tours can fly as low as 300 feet over a congested area, Dorn said. Only utility flights can fly that low in Hawaii, he said.
Thielen said Mink made a good start, but more needs to be done to improve safety and reduce negative impacts like increased noise in residential neighborhoods. Her daughter state Sen. Laura Thielen (D, Kailua-Waimanalo-Hawaii Kai), who introduced a bill related to reducing noise from helicopter operations this year,
also is backing the proposed ban.
Kailua resident Charissa Johns said she supports Cynthia Thielen proposals “100%.”
“Hawaii is not for sale. We’ve already given away the land. Let’s not give away the airspace,” said Johns, who said the status quo has led to noise complaints and safety worries.
But Dorn of Paradise Helicopters said Cynthia Thielen’s call for a ban on tour flights and other proposals are overreaching and would decimate an important part of Hawaii’s visitor industry.
“It would have an immediate impact on operations
for us and for other air tour companies,” Dorn said. “We’d try to hang on, hoping common sense prevailed, but if there was no end in sight, we would have to lay off employees. It wouldn’t make sense to go bankrupt.”
“We can’t just legislate our way to safety. The last fatal car accident was probably yesterday, but no one is talking about banning cars, nor should they. Are helicopter rides necessary?
No, but neither is swimming in the ocean or driving a car, and we still do those,” Dorn said.