Hawaii Rep. Ed Case introduced new legislation Wednesday aimed at making plane and helicopter tour flights safer and less disruptive to the communities they fly over.

Case’s “Safe and Quiet Skies Act” would set decibel limits over residential, commercial and recreational areas. It looks to give states and localities more control over the industry.

The bill, however, will have to withstand what Case anticipates will be heavy lobbying against it by the flight tour industry if it’s to become law.

“We’re going to have some pretty powerful opposition,” Case said at a press conference at Kakaako Waterfront Park. “But I’m hoping that we will find a reasonable combination along the way.”

If it doesn’t pass, at least it will raise more awareness and make clear to the Federal Aviation Administration that many in Hawaii find the current oversight of those flights unacceptable, he added.

Magnum Helicopters open door tour flies over Ala Moana Beach.

Magnum Helicopters open-door tour flies over Ala Moana Beach.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The introduction follows two separate tour flight crashes in recent months that killed a total of 14 people on Oahu.

Furthermore, communities across the islands have grappled for decades with the noise from helicopter tours. Those flights, however, are exclusively regulated by the FAA, leaving state and county lawmakers virtually powerless to address community concerns.

Notably, Case’s bill would also prohibit such tour flights over military installations and areas managed by the National Park Service, including the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii island.

In 2017, some 16,520 tour flights were reported over Volcanoes and 4,839 flights at Haleakala National Park, according to a letter Case sent to FAA Regional Administrator Raquel Girvin in April.

Pushed To The Brink

Relations between the tour operators and residents have reached a breaking point on the Big Island, where the population has spiked in the past decade. On Oahu, several neighborhood boards have passed resolutions calling for more stringent regulation of the flights.

It’s not clear how many thousands of annual tour flights take place in Hawaii outside of those National Park areas, as operators aren’t required to file flight plans. The flights can be roughly tracked, however, with services such as FlightRadar24.

In a statement Wednesday reacting to Case’s proposal, Hawaii Helicopter Association Executive Director Melissa Pavlicek said the group’s tour operators are “committed to conducting safe helicopter operations.”

Hawaii Rep. Ed Case briefs local media on plans to introduce new federal legislation that would impose tougher regulations on local tour flight operators.

Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

“Safe operations must take into account the geography, weather including cloud cover and air traffic control. The FAA has the requisite knowledge and technical expertise and awareness of safety and security matters,” Pavlicek added.

The local operators maintain they are capable of policing themselves. They investigate community complaints through their “fly neighborly” program, and it’s in their best interest to maintain good relations with local communities, they’ve said.

Some 15 tour companies operate flights out of nine state airports. The industry contributes some $149 million to the local economy, according to the association.

Case acknowledged there could be economic impacts if his more stringent regulations take effect. Still, the priority should still be residents’ quality of life, not tourists, he said.

“This is not a tourist island or tourist state. This is a state of 1.4 million residents, where we host tourists but not at the expense of our safety, not at the expense of our community,” he said.

Case said he believed it reasonable to limit helicopter tour flights to between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, “so we can have our weekends free.”

The FAA has rejected calls for the community to provide input on an update to the Hawaii Air Tour Common Procedures manual, since members of the public lack the safety expertise. Under Case’s bill, the agency would have to accept such public input. It would also have to adopt National Transportation Safety Board safety recommendations for tour flights.

NTSB officials called out the FAA after the June skydiving plane crash in Mokuleia, noting that it issued a special report in 2008 calling for more stringent safety standards of such flights. The FAA rejected most of those recommendations, however.

Case held the press conference at the waterfront hoping to get the tour helicopters that frequently fly by there in the backdrop.

None flew by during the event however.

Manoa resident Bill McCorriston, who regularly visits the park, said he usually sees two or three such flights an hour and that they sometimes fly as low as 50 to 75 feet, violating minimum altitude requirements.

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