This year’s aviation tragedies have claimed lives and shattered families. The burning wreckage from the deadly helicopter crash in Kailua’s residential community reminded us that Hawaii’s helicopter industry still functions like the “Wild West,” bereft of adequate regulations to protect bystanders and passengers alike.

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Hawaii’s unruly helicopters aren’t a new problem. Over 30 years ago, the 1988 Legislature faced similar proliferation of nearly unregulated tour helicopter companies and took steps to promote safety, reduce hazards, and control congestion.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation developed the 1989 “Hawaii State Helicopter System Plan,” which identified a variety of safety, air congestion, and noise pollution problems and outlined solutions to be pursued by federal and state government. The DOT was responsible for implementing the plan’s recommendations and complying with the statutory mandate to update the plan every five years, but they succumbed to pressure from the industry and conceded to the almost-lawless environment we have today.

Helicopter industry professionals and critics of tighter restrictions often argue that aviation regulation can only come from the federal government. While the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress retain jurisdiction over the most impactful regulation like flight paths, noise requirements, and elevation restrictions, the 1989 Helicopter Master Plan clearly outlined solutions for state and county governments. Correspondence with Congressman Ed Case confirmed the Master Plan’s suggestions for local government.

Immediately following April’s tragedy, a coalition of Windward Oahu lawmakers and I began pursuing solutions as did Congressman Case. Information given to Congressman Case and passed onto us from the FAA and the Congressional Research Office confirmed that tour helicopter “operations are largely unregulated, the operators have shown no inclination to self-regulation, and it is clear that substantial regulation at the federal, state and local level is necessary.”

Robinson Helicopter leaves HNL airport. Daniel Inouye International Airport.
A Robinson R44 helicopter leaving Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The same type of aircraft was involved in the Kailua crash. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A quick glance at FlightRadar24, a popular helicopter flight path tracking app, shows that the same unreliable models of helicopter that crashed in Kailua are still being flown over our hospitals, schools, and homes. We can’t afford to wait for the federal government to act. Hawaii’s state and county governments can take practical steps now to make our skies safer.

Update Helicopter Plan

First, the Hawaii DOT should update the now-antiquated Helicopter Master Plan. The 1989 report outlines solutions for the same safety and nuisance problems we have today, but unfortunately tens of thousands of helicopters still fly over our pristine wilderness and at low elevations over hospitals, schools, and homes.

Although the state can’t regulate federally controlled airspace, the DOT can still make meaningful progress toward regulating tour operators by exercising their control over airport leases and helicopter licenses. DOT should use its statutory authority and guidance from an updated Helicopter Master Plan to consider substantially drawing down the number of helicopter leases at state airports.

The second solution involves closing a loophole that allows Hawaii’s helicopter tour companies to avoid paying the general excise tax GET. The U.S. Constitution largely prevents states from taxing aviation transportation companies because it would interfere with interstate commerce.

However, since almost all tour helicopter companies take off and land from the same location and do not transport riders between counties, the state can subject these companies to the GET just like any other company. I already have legislation on my desk for the 2020 session that will close this tax loophole, subjecting helicopter companies to our state excise tax. Though this doesn’t completely solve the state’s problems with the tour helicopter industry, it sets those companies on the same playing field as the rest of Hawaii’s tourism businesses.

Third, the counties can also play an important role in creating safer skies. Because counties share responsibility for much of Hawaii’s land use regulations, the counties can examine how their zoning ordinances relate to helicopter pads on county and private lands.
Counties already enforce zoning laws for the benefit of endangered species, water, and other natural resources.

“One tragic incident is one too many, but we’ve already had two in the last year.”

They can use the same approach to limiting tour helicopter companies’ dominance over our skies by limiting the number of permits given to private helipads. Tour companies that fly routes over densely populated residential communities and sensitive natural environments should find themselves under additional scrutiny to merit usage of county lands.

These actions just scratch the surface of what we can do to keep the helicopter industry accountable. One tragic incident is one too many, but we’ve already had two in the last year. Many blindly trust that helicopter companies will monitor themselves and eliminate the impacts on residential communities and fragile natural resources, but this isn’t happening.

We need to bring these “Wild West” tour operations under control.

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