Editorial: Air tour safety can be improved
While year-end tourism figures have yet to be released, recent visitor arrival counts were on pace to top the 10 million mark in 2019, extending the state’s decade-long string of annual gains.
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While year-end tourism figures have yet to be released, recent visitor arrival counts were on pace to top the 10 million mark in 2019, extending the state’s decade-long string of annual gains. And more arrivals mean more demand for tourist attractions, including helicopter tours.
For example, according to state figures, March 2019 saw 2,105 helicopter landings at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, marking a nine-fold increase compared to March 2010. Given the popularity of air tours, more needs to be done to address growing concerns about safety and nuisance matters.
Underscoring the need for more scrutiny of helicopter and fixed-wing air tours are circumstances tied to the tragic Dec. 26 tour helicopter crash in Kauai’s remote Kokee area, in which all aboard — six passengers and the pilot — were killed.
The copter apparently struck a cliff face before falling 50 to 100 yards about a mile inland. While the cause remains unknown, experts point out that area’s mountainous topography and sudden shifts in winter weather pose unique challenges to pilots, and that it would be difficult to make an emergency landing anywhere in its steep terrain.
Currently, the Hawaii Air Tour Common Procedures Manual, a Federal Aviation Administration document, sets most of the industry’s rules and guidelines. In an effort to usher in more stringent standards, Hawaii Congressman Ed Case has introduced the “Safe and Quiet Skies Act” in the U.S. House.
Among the legislation’s provisions is one allowing states and localities to impose requirements that exceed the minimum national requirements. With adequate enforcement, this could be a game-changer for places in the islands, such as Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, that see a lot of “flight-seeing.”
Should tour companies that send pilots to areas prone to visibility troubles be required to employ only those with an instrument rating — certification that’s not dependent on visual cues? Should there be set limits on the daily count of tour flyovers in residential neighborhoods?
It’s encouraging that a task force, which includes the FAA, state officials and the Hawaii Helicopter Association, is discussing concerns raised by neighborhood boards, the Honolulu City Council and others. Communities should have a say in sorting out reasonable requirements. And local government should be able to impose laws.
Also rightly spurring Case to address airspace issues are long-standing complaints about decibel levels in neighborhoods near or en route to sightseeing draws, such as Kilauea’s 2018 spectacular eruption in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Pearl Harbor.
One provision would set a limit on decibel levels; another would restrict tour flights over national parks, national wildlife refuges and wilderness areas as well as national cemeteries and military installations. Both are welcome moves.
Case’s proposal was first circulated in the wake of a deadly April tour helicopter crash in a Kailua neighborhood that killed the pilot and two passengers; and a June skydiving plane crash at the North Shore’s Dillingham Airfield, in which 11 people aboard died shortly after takeoff.
Despite last year’s three crashes here, many tourists will weigh various risks and continue to board tour aircraft. In the aftermath of the Kauai crash, the helicopter association issued a written statement saying that Hawaii tour operators “comply with safety standards established by federal law, which include requirements for equipment maintenance, pilot training and altitude limits.”
While most tours are impressively adept at adapting to geographic, weather and equipment conditions, more can and should be done — for the sake of safety and to uphold good neighbor standards.