Air tour stakeholders in Hawaii have formed a task force to deal with industry issues there following several high-profile accidents and legislative backlash from certain elected officials. The Hawaii Air Tour Task Force’s mission is to address safety and noise issues related to rotor- and fixed-wing aerial tours in the state. The task force said, “Community involvement, public outreach, and transparency will be prioritized in all recommendations from the task force to industry and regulators.” Initial members include the Hawaii Helicopter Association (HHA), Hawaii Department of Transportation Airports Division (HDOTA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Helicopter Association International (HAI), elected officials and their representatives, and “other industry stakeholders.”
The task force is seeking community involvement as it moves forward, said Justin Brooke, task force co-chair and president of the HHA. HDOTA is applying for grant funding from the FAA and will also commit state dollars to fund public meetings, produce a study, and make recommendations concerning the helicopter and fixed-wing tour industry. The task force’s formation is the next step forward on the part of the industry, regulators, and other interested parties to address the public’s concerns regarding helicopter and fixed-wing aerial tours in Hawaii.
Members of the task force’s executive committee include representatives from the HHA, HDOTA, General Aviation Council of Hawaii, HAI, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Elected officials on the task force are state senator Lorraine Inouye and state representative Chris Lee. The FAA and U.S. Army and Navy are serving as technical advisors.
Air tour operators have been under increased criticism and scrutiny following fatal helitour accidents in 2019 in Kauai and Oahu that collectively killed 10. In May, Hawaii State Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R) called on the FAA to prohibit air tours over residential areas and national parks and called for the immediate grounding of helitour flights in Hawaii pending an investigation. In August, U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) proposed legislation that will all but eliminate the helitour industry nationwide. The “Safe and Quiet Skies Act” would direct the FAA to impose a series of restrictions on the industry, including flying no lower than 1,500 feet agl; prohibiting flights over military installations, national cemeteries, national wilderness areas, national parks, and national wildlife refuges; and forbidding pilots to act as tour narrators while flying. It would also require helicopters to have a noise signature no greater than 55 dbA during overflight over any “occupied area,” be it commercial, residential, or recreational—a standard that no currently certified helicopter can meet. The bill would also scuttle federal pre-emption with regard to airspace and air operations by giving states and localities the power to “impose additional requirements—stricter than the minimum national requirements called for in the act—on tour flights.”
Case’s bill is just the latest in a series offered by congressional representatives in recent years designed to restrict helicopter operations from New York to Los Angeles that attempted to, among other things, impose minimum helicopter operating altitudes, set a curfew for hours of operation, and mandate flight paths.
The HHA estimates that helicopter operators annually contribute $150 million to the state economy. The association points out that it has endeavored to address the concerns of citizen groups and regulators by investing more than $100 million in quiet-technology helicopters such as the Airbus EC130B4 in recent decades, adopting “fly neighborly” programs as advocated by HAI, and employing the PlaneNoise noise reporting and measuring system since 2017.