As tourism rebounds, island residents are demanding relief from noisy sightseeing helicopters buzzing their homes up to 40 times a day.

Fed up with inaction by the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that regulates the helicopter industry, Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina is pleading directly for relief from the helicopter companies themselves.

Last month she wrote to the owners of five helicopter companies that operate on Oahu — Mauna Loa, Blue Hawaiian, Rainbow, Magnum and Paradise — asking them to voluntarily change the flight paths and schedules of their tours over the Windward side of the island to avoid residential areas.

“I implore you to take steps to be respectful to our communities and build positive relationships with the people of Oahu,” she wrote, adding that Windward area residents are reporting that the flyovers, as many as 40 a day, start as early as 7:30 a.m. and continue to 6 p.m.

N745RH Aerospatiale AS350 BA AStar helicopter flies offshore Ala Moana Beach Park.
A Rainbow Helicopter flies tours offshore at Ala Moana Beach Park. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

She said that some of her constituents say the noise is so loud that they can’t be heard when they speak to someone standing 6 feet away.

Dan Brown, 63, who lives in Kailua Bluffs, said the constant noise has made him feel sick at times.

“It’s like eight to 10 times an hour from 8 to 6, seven days a week; they don’t stop for holidays, they don’t stop for Sundays, it’s every day,” he said. “It makes my blood pressure go up. The more it goes on, the angrier I get.”

Holly Sevier, who lives in Haiku Valley in Kaneohe, is another aggravated resident.

“Sometimes it goes on for hours, hour after hour after hour,” she said. “I’m in my garden. I feel like a zoo animal.”

Moreover, she said, the sound of helicopter rotors ricochets and echoes off the cliffs, creating a maddening level of noise.

“The noise reverberates,” she said.

People in Waimanalo are distressed, too.

“This problem has been ongoing for years, many, many years,” said Kimeona Kane, chairman of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board, who added that in addition to sightseeing jaunts, aviation companies are also increasingly engaging in other noisy commercial activities, such as hauling banners behind the aircraft bearing messages, including marriage proposals.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case has led Hawaii’s congressional delegation in seeking relief for local residents. Case introduced the Safe and Quiet Skies Act in 2019 and reintroduced it last year. It would require commercial helicopter companies to operate at lower decibel levels when flying over parks and residential areas and would permit local governments to enact additional requirements that are stricter than federal law.

He has eight co-sponsors, all Democrats.

In 2019, with Case’s support, and following a fatal helicopter crash in Kailua, the Honolulu City Council passed a resolution calling on the FAA to work to “achieve a balance between the interests of residents and those of the air tour helicopter and small commercial aircraft industry that respects the peace, safety, and serenity that all residents of Oahu should be able to enjoy.” It sought limits on the number of tours each day and government review of flight paths to minimize the impact on neighborhoods.

Since then, Case too has grown frustrated at opposition by the industry and inaction by the Federal Aviation Administration. In a recent editorial published in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on the Big Island, Case described the helicopter companies as part of a “well-oiled … industry, which believes it owns the skies and has no regard for community disruption and other ground impacts.”

Moreover, he wrote, “this industry can’t be trusted,” adding that he had come to believe that the state should act “to severely curtail their operations throughout Hawaii.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Case has sponsored legislation that would require helicopter tour companies to operate at lower decibel levels over residential areas. Screenshot/2021

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who is running for governor, said in a statement that “noise pollution” from commercial helicopters is one of the “most consistent and least resolved issues” in Hawaii.

In Washington, he said, he had found the Federal Aviation Administration to be “unresponsive and lacking in action to find a solution,” although he had hopes that some officials said they would seek to update a federal manual that provides guidance to air tour operators.

Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, who could introduce companion legislation to Case’s but have not, declined to comment.

Brown, the Kailua resident, said he had lobbied for helicopter noise reduction in the past but became discouraged when aviation officials told him they believed their job was to “promote aviation, not hinder aviation.”

Kiaaina said she decided to reach out directly to the companies themselves, to ask them to be “good neighbors,” because it is becoming increasingly apparent that efforts to get help from federal officials are failing.

“It’s clearly a federal issue,” she said. “I don’t understand how the federal government can be so callous in regulating helicopter companies.”

The five helicopter companies were contacted for comment but did not respond to inquiries. The Helicopter Association International, a trade group for the tour industry, told Civil Beat last year that Case’s legislation would undermine the FAA’s authority, which prohibits local governments from taking action to regulate aviation activities on their own.

In a letter to Kiaaina that he also provided to Civil Beat, Doug Froning, general manager for Magnum Helicopters, said that the company was aware of the increase in noise complaints and that company officials are “willing to work with the community and residents to try to mitigate their concerns.”

He said the company had reduced its flyovers by 50% by reducing the numbers of daily air tours from 21 a day in 2019 to 10 a day now. He said it also closes flight operations on major holidays and Sunday and pilots don’t take off earlier than 8 a.m.

Kalei Gregory, director of operations for Paradise Helicopters, wrote that the company was taking Kiaaina’s comments seriously and would continue to work with the community to address noise concerns. He noted that the company was in compliance with FAA regulations.

Helicopter touring is a big business in Hawaii.

A 60-minute trip by Rainbow Helicopters, advertised as “Royal Crown of Oahu,” travels over the South Shore, North Shore, Windward Coast, Koolau Mountains and Sacred Falls for $375 per person. Mauna Loa Helicopters offers a “doors-off” tour for passengers 12 and over for $293, lasting 45 to 50 minutes.

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