Helicopter tour company sees increase in bookings after months of no action due to virus

  • Halemaumau Crater as seen from Paradise Helicopter.

  • Halemaumau Crater as seen from Paradise Helicopter. (Photos courtesy/Matt Mannion)

After months of nearly nonexistent business because of COVID-19, one tour company has seen an uptick in bookings since Sunday’s eruption commenced at Kilauea Volcano‘s summit.

Paradise Helicopters, with locations in Kona, Waimea, Hilo and Oahu, has seen bookings rise the last two days, a reprieve from the pandemic’s economic disaster.

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“The call volume is way up and people want to fly now,” said Paradise operations manager Bronsten Kossow. “The volcano immediately started the phones ringing. Everyone who is here wants to get up and fly.”

Kossow said the company had seen some return of bookings with the state’s Safe Travels program inception in October, but once additional testing requirements were implemented they had a weak return.

“We had high hopes for Christmas but then came the changes with the travel restrictions and the testing requirements and we had about 30% cancellations on top of what we had booked, which wasn’t much compared to other years, but we are happy for what we can get,” he said.

The company went from 128 employees pre-COVID to 42 — the number needed to sustain viability, stay within regulations and maintain the aircraft.

The government Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Payroll Support Program (PSP) funding allowed them to keep their doors open for essential employees.

“Our Oahu base was the only one who stayed busy because of environmental projects,” said owner Calvin Dorn.

Kossow said business was almost nonexistent other than a few local people going out on anniversaries.

“We were reduced to one or two tour flights a month,” he said.

On Monday, they booked out aircraft and pilots performing nine flights, which has not been done since COVID shut down tourism in March.

After closing the Hilo base, “because without a volcano and with COVID, nobody was flying out of Hilo,” they flew five tours on Monday. Four more departed from Kona.

“With the volcano, we don’t know if it’s still going to go tomorrow or is it going to be done?” said Kossow.

Both Kossow and Dorn stressed COVID protocols the company has put in place to keep their pilots and customers safe.

Beside following protocols of mask wearing and sanitation, the company received a Gold Star from the county.

“It was another way for us to get ideas to hold ourselves to our high standards. With the Bell 407 we were able to separate the cabin from the front with barriers that feed the airflow as two separate systems,” said Kossow.

They also started selling buyouts, allowing only family groups in the cabin.

“We are super precautionary. Everybody gets a temperature check and have to show us their negative tests. We have a whole sanitation team that goes out between flights,” Kossow explained.

Pre-COVID they flew over 30 to 40 flights per day versus nine flights Monday.

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“We were excited for those nine though,” mused Dorn.

They both agreed the volcano is good for the economy.

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