Commercial helicopter tours in Hawaii are a bane to grounded residents, but a popular tourist activity that has proven a successful business for a handful of tour companies in the islands.

The lack of regulation and lucrative nature of these commercial helicopter tours have created something of a “Wild West” in the sky. Focusing on the natural scenery of the coastlines, mountains, and national parks, tour helicopters fly over the same areas and neighborhoods on a daily basis to the detriment of residents below dealing with the incessant noise.

When legislation like Senate Bill 1069, introduced by Sen. Laura Thielen, and Senate Bill 436, introduced by Sen. Russell Ruderman, aimed at addressing helicopter noise was heard in committee, numerous residents testified about their diminished quality of life.

A number of people said they cannot hear television programs or have conversations in their own homes when helicopters fly over, which can occur in some neighborhoods multiple times an hour. Some noted their animals are disturbed, their kids can’t concentrate on their schoolwork, and those wishing to sleep cannot during the day.

On the Big Island by Volcano National Park, one man said the helicopter tours start before he has his breakfast and last throughout the day, making his life “miserable.” The distress and agitation the tour helicopters cause on a daily basis creates a public health issue that needs addressing.

The “Magnum P.I.” helicopter, pictured here flying over Oahu in 2016, plays a commercial tour helicopter in the popular show.

Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

What regulation is in place for commercial tour helicopters? Outside of some minimum-altitude-level guidelines, barely anything.

With no flight plans, no limits on frequency, and little to no enforcement or accountability for pilots who violate the few rules in place, neighborhoods are inundated with noise, and residents overwhelmingly feel that their privacy is being violated from hovering helicopters.

Although helicopters fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration once in flight, there are also steps the state and counties can take. The FAA could implement a Special Federal Aviation Regulation or create place-specific rules as it’s done along the east coast of Long Island. Due to the frequency of flights from New York City to the Hamptons that pass over residences on Long Island, Sen. Chuck Schumer in response to constituent complaints, became an advocate for better managing the helicopter traffic. The FAA ultimately passed new rules, providing a specific offshore flight route for the helicopters, and minimum-altitude levels of 2,500 feet over land and 3,000 feet over water (the minimum-flight altitude observed over residences in Hawaii is only 1,500 feet).

SFARs for national parks and the surrounding areas that often see a deluge of commercial-tour helicopters in Hawaii is not only appropriate, but also necessary for compliance with the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000, requiring the FAA to create air-tour plans or enter voluntary agreements with commercial-tour companies.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono have attempted to sue the FAA to comply with this act. Oral arguments were scheduled for the U.S. Court of Appeals in November 2018, but were cancelled. The groups are currently re-filing the petition.

Since the implementation of the National Park Air Tour Management Act was delayed, it has allowed commercial tours to continue unabated. Volcano National Park recorded 15,489 helicopter tour flights in 2016, which averages to 42 flights daily. Considering they generally only fly during the day, it breaks down to three to four flights hourly over the same general areas.

National park officials have also commented that the tours rob people from the ability to observe parks’ natural sounds and commune with nature. This includes Native Hawaiians who often use parks for cultural practices. The flights traverse nesting areas of endangered native birds like the io, or Hawaiian hawk, as well as the nene, or Hawaiian goose, causing widespread disruption.

Solutions

It’s clear that action is needed regarding the lack of rules and regulations surrounding these commercial helicopter tours. The various scopes of government jurisdiction, ranging from federal to state to county, can play a unique role in possibly addressing the helicopter noise problem in the islands.

• The U.S. congressional delegation in Washington — Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Congressman Ed Case — need to work with the FAA to create Hawaii-specific legislation in response to constituent complaints. The FAA has jurisdiction of all aircrafts in U.S. airspace, and is the most effective entity in helping alleviate helicopter-noise pollution. Even more than enforced minimum-altitude requirements, flight plans/routes in the most affected areas, namely national parks, need to comply with the National Park Air Tour Management Act.

• The state’s greatest leverage in indirectly regulating commercial helicopter tours is public airports. If no concessions are made by these tour companies voluntarily or through special rule changes by the FAA, the state has the ability to limit or restrict pilots’ access to the state’s airports for take-offs and landings.

• On the county level, private-use heliports and helipads fall under local government jurisdiction through zoning and land-use restrictions. Limits on the number of operations, time of operations, and the size of the helicopters using these facilities can be dictated through restrictions, often within conditional-use permits or zoning restrictions.

Though helicopter noise is in some ways inevitable, there are possible steps to reduce the impact it has on the daily lives of Hawaii residents. It isn’t fair to the neighborhoods in areas of natural beauty to concede peace and quiet on a daily basis to accommodate a very noisy, invasive leisure activity. Through cooperation and common-sense rule and regulation passage, tour companies can run their businesses and residents can enjoy quieter skies.

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