Revisiting what is for him a familiar issue, U.S. Rep. Ed Case has reintroduced a bill to clamp new regulations on the helicopter tour and skydiving industries, allowing state and local governments to impose far stricter noise regulations than are currently in place.

It would also require pilots to focus on safe flying and prohibit them from narrating tours.

The Safe and Quiet Skies Act, which Case first introduced in 2019, was driven because, he said, in that year in Hawaii alone three people died in the crash of a commercial air tour helicopter into a residential neighborhood on Oahu, 11 people died when a commercial skydiving plane crashed on Oahu, and then seven more perished in a tour helicopter accident on Kauai.

Parts of the helicopter rests along Oneawa Street in Kailua after helicopter crashed in a the Kailua neighborhood.
Parts of a helicopter rested along Oneawa Street in Kailua after the aircraft crashed in a residential area in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

While the bill didn’t go anywhere when it was originally introduced, Case said pursuing it now is essential to flight safety in countless local communities. The bill, which was referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was among many pieces of legislation sidetracked by the rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m re-introducing it to continue that effort,” Case said in a statement Friday. “It is clear that between my initial introduction and now that my concerns are increasingly shared in many parts of our country in addition to Hawai’i.

“It is not unusual — and is, in fact, standard — that efforts to change federal law take multiple Congresses and require building coalitions of like-minded colleagues and removing obstacles over time.”

Case charged that both the Federal Aviation Administration and the helicopter industry “have been operating under an unacceptable status quo for decades and are very resistant to change.”

An FAA spokesman said that agency policy precludes taking positions on pending legislation.

Later, however, the FAA released a statement saying, “All pilots must comply with federal regulations stating that the pilot-in-command is directly responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft.

“Any other activities, such as conversations with passengers, are at the pilot’s discretion based on workload. Air tours take place in visual flight rules conditions, during which pilots have clear views of their surroundings.”

Civil Beat asked the offices of Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, as well as Rep. Kai Kahele for comment on the Case bill. While Schatz and Kahele did not respond, a spokesperson for Hirono noted that she and Schatz introduced a different measure last year to increase scrutiny by, among other things, requiring “black box” recorders in tour aircraft, installing terrain warning systems on such flights and implementing previous recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hirono’s office released a statement saying:  “Our state has seen too many tragedies, which is why Sen. Schatz and I introduced the Air Tour and Skydiving Safety Improvement Act last Congress. The bill includes provisions to make sure that the current and future recommendations of the NTSB are given full consideration by the FAA. These changes will help keep visitors and residents safe.”

However, in 2016, Kahele — then in the Hawaii state Senate, along with six other state legislators — sent a letter to Hirono, Schatz and then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard demanding action on chronic helicopter noise and safety problems. The letter argued that the situation was particularly acute on Hawaii island, where helicopter tours over the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have been subject to a flood of community complaints.

Bob Ernst, president of the Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono (HICoP), excoriated Hirono, Schatz and Kahele. He said that, after Kahele’s 2016 letter, “he disappeared on us.”

“That was very disappointing,” Ernst said. “We are very disturbed (for him) to totally ignore this devastating issue in Hawaii.”

“It is clear that between my initial introduction and now that my concerns are increasingly shared in many parts of our country in addition to Hawai’i.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case

Helicopter Association International, the trade group for the helicopter tour industry, asserted that Case’s bill would undermine the basic authority of the FAA, which is generally prohibited from allowing state and local governments to create their own, independent aviation regulations.

“This runs directly counter to the intent of Congress,” said James Voila, president of the group, in a prepared statement Friday. “The Safe and Quiet Skies Act enables local governments to impose additional requirements and restrictions on commercial air tours, including outright banning of such tours.”

Ironically, on its website the organization touts its creation of “Plane Noise,” a voluntary industry program to conduct acoustic sampling in an effort to control aircraft noise.

On Friday, a brief entry on the association’s site read: “Effective June 11, 2020, this webform has been discontinued. No further information is available.”

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