Legislature takes aim at the skies

  • Russell Ruderman

  • SEN. LORRAINE INOUYE

Legislation in the state Senate aims to address ongoing noise and safety concerns related to tour helicopters.

If it becomes law, Senate Bill 2649 would require that tour aircraft companies seeking a permit to operate in airports under state control equip their aircraft with flotation and tracking devices approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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Permits would not be authorized unless the devices are installed.

The legislation was drafted at the request of Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HICoP, founding board member Bob Ernst said.

In an email to Big Island legislators on Monday, Ernst urged support for the measure.

“Your constituents/voters live in misery from the incessant tour copter noise nuisance pollution, from the humongous carbon footprint from a totally nonessential source that rains down on us and the constant threat to our safety of tour copter crashes on our homes/businesses,” he wrote. “As you all well know it is way past time to address once and for all this ongoing 60 year and running tour copter debacle.”

Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna, a district often impacted by tour helicopter noise, said the legislation is a “step along the way in trying to get them to fly more of their time offshore.”

One of the only places in the country to “successfully control” helicopter tours is Long Island, he said, and there, operators are required to fly an offshore route.

It’s “actually a worse problem here,” but Ruderman said no such restrictions have been put in place, and the argument has been made that the machines are not equipped to fly offshore.

SB 2649 has “to do with safety and, hopefully one day, mitigating the nuisance that they cause.”

Ernst called the proposed changes “no brainers” that address safety and noise concerns.

“This is a statewide issue from here to Kauai and everything in between,” he said. “Why are we asking the state to act? Very simply, the FAA has totally abdicated any responsibility and duties regarding tour copters in the state of Hawaii.”

In 2019 alone, there were two helicopter crashes in the state — one on Kauai and one on Oahu — that resulted in 10 fatalities.

While other organizations in the state offered support for the measure, in testimony submitted before a hearing of the senate Transportation Committee, the Hawaii Helicopter Association opposed SB 2649 “on the grounds that equipment requirements are governed by federal law.”

“Equipment in aircraft operated throughout the entire national airspace system is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration,” the nonprofit said in its written testimony. “The FAA is regarded as the top aviation regulatory body in the world and is considered the preeminent authority in aircraft equipment requirements.”

Despite the opposition, however, the bill unanimously passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee and today will go before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health.

Transportation Committee Chairwoman Lorraine Inouye, who represents a large portion of Hawaii Island, said SB 2469 is essential to address mishaps that led to accidents like the two helicopter crashes last year.

“As we consider the possibility of car crashes and other transportation accidents, we should also consider how to improve the safety of air recreation,” she said.

Other related bills, however, have failed to gain traction.

A similar measure introduced by Hilo Sen. Kai Kahele, Senate Bill 3154, was deferred by the Senate Transportation and Energy, Economic Development and Tourism committees.

That bill would require verification that an applicant for a tour aircraft permit fitted their aircraft with FAA-approved flotation and tracking devices, would mandate that operators comply with National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, and would prohibit tour aircraft from operating near a residential property.

Senate Bill 2319, which was co-sponsored by Ruderman and would ban tour vehicle operators and tour aircraft operations from conducting commercial activities on Sundays, also was deferred.

And Senate Bill 2320, also co-sponsored by Ruderman, which would require operators to publicly identify the pilot and type of helicopter to be used, and provide a projected takeoff time and projected flight plan, was never heard in committee.

“Most of the control over helicopters is federal, and we have very little control, (which is) why we’re nibbling around the edges with things like this. But to my frustration, these two bills did not get a hearing,” Ruderman said.

Additionally, Senate Resolution 13 and House Concurrent Resolution 19, both of which urge the FAA to more aggressively enforce existing laws for commercial helicopter tour operations in the state, have not progressed to committee.

The nonbinding resolutions call for the FAA to increase the minimum flight altitudes for tour helicopters, mandate offshore routes when appropriate, and create air tour management plans for national parks in Hawaii.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky contributed to this story.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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