A popular proposal to study and track tourist helicopter noise and safety in Hawaii is on the verge of being shot down by Gov. David Ige.

Tucked into Ige’s June 27 list of laws he intended to veto was Senate Bill 3272 that would require helicopter tour operators to provide monthly reports on their aerial activities to the state Department of Transportation to better track noise and public safety concerns.

In his notice to lawmakers, Ige said he was planning to veto the bill because the Federal Aviation Administration does not permit state agencies such as DOT to impose or enforce regulations on aircraft, and that the state would be unable therefore to take any substantive action based on the information the reports would gather.

A Magnum tour helicopter flies offshore Waikiki. Many people are complaining about noise from the tour operations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Some helicopter industry executives have opposed the bill. Jack Harter Helicopters of Lihue, Kauai, said it would be “very burdensome and costly” to compile the reports. Paradise Helicopters, based on the Big Island, said passing it could potentially jeopardize $70 million in FAA airport funding.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who has traveled the islands talking to residents about helicopter noise and the risks posed by tourist choppers buzzing over parks and densely-populated areas, is drafting a letter to the governor asking him to reconsider his intent to veto the bill, according to Case spokesman Nestor Garcia.

Hawaii Sen. Chris Lee, one of SB 3272’s primary sponsors, said the legislation, which passed unanimously in April, has been the subject of years of deliberations.

Complaints about helicopters “are the single most common issue we have heard about” from residents in recent years, said Lee, who has been a lawmaker since 2008.

He said that the steep rise in helicopter tourism has provoked growing irritation for many residents, and that the 2019 crash in Kailua, when a helicopter fell out of the sky and landed in the street, killing three people, underscored the safety risk as well.

“It was once reasonable, and a lot of folks in the community understood,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point it’s intolerable and it is having a huge impact on lives.”

According to the Oahu Tour Helicopter Safety and Noise Inter-Action Group, 18 neighborhood boards have passed resolutions asking for help against what they have described as adverse effects on neighborhoods from the increase in helicopter tourism.

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

Lee said the state bill had been carefully drafted in consultation with the state Department of Transportation and the Attorney General’s office.

“We know the bill is technically and legally sound and within the ability of the state to execute,” he said.

The problem, he said, is that state aviation officials don’t want to enforce it. He said that for that reason, when they wrote the bill, lawmakers took responsibility for the interpretive task force away from DOT and gave it instead to the state Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.

The DOT “doesn’t actually want to do this,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything and we found folks who will.”

Lee said that collecting the monthly figures would provide data that could help FAA officials better understand the problems of local communities and encourage the federal agency to find ways to regulate them. The reports would collect the dates and times of flights, the number of passengers aboard each flight, the flight paths taken by the helicopters and whether the aircrafts deviated from their intended flight plans.

The new task force would replace an earlier unofficial task force that had been criticized because it was made up primarily of aircraft industry representatives and government officials without offering an adequate opportunity for citizen participation.

The Hawaii Air Tour Noise and Safety Task Force was launched in 2019 but abruptly stopped meeting in late 2021 when the state Department of Transportation abruptly withdrew from the group.

In a statement, DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said the meetings had been “postponed in response to community feedback that the meetings did not result in mitigation of helicopter noise.”

Even people in the helicopter industry were surprised when the DOT shut it down.

“There was a task force that was working and the state disbanded it,” said Richard Schuman, president of Magnum Helicopters.

The new task force, if the legislation passed and it is allowed to go forward, would include participation by residents of communities affected by aircraft noise or having safety concerns.

Schuman said he didn’t believe the state can do anything to govern the helicopter industry because the FAA doesn’t care about noise and has the exclusive regulatory power over the matter.

“The state and county have zero jurisdiction,” he said. “The state is somewhat irrelevant.”

He said he has voluntarily cut back on flights — reducing the daily number by half and closing operations on Sunday — but that he is unwilling to do anything more.

“I say to people ‘Go shut up,’” he said. “That dog don’t hunt … I’m not doing one thing more till federal law tells me to. Too bad, too sad.”

People who have lobbied for stronger rules regarding helicopter tourism were discouraged by the news of the governor’s potential veto and hope he will change his mind.

“I don’t want the governor to veto that bill,” said Larry Veray, president of the Pearl City neighborhood board, which includes 44,000 residents, and which has been lobbying for helicopter restrictions.

A Blue Hawaiian tour helicopter flies offshore Ala Moana Beach on way towards Waikiki.
A Blue Hawaiian tour helicopter flies offshore Ala Moana Beach. Key lawmakers say the bill is needed to collect more data on tour flights so reasonable restrictions can be crafted. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Why is the governor vetoing a good bill?” asked Michelle Matson, a Diamond Head resident who has pressed for regulation of helicopter noise. “Questions need to be asked.”

Contacted for comment, Ige’s staff referred questions about the reason for the veto, and as to whether federal preemption extended as far as a task force gathering information, to the attorney general’s office.

Gary Yamashiroya, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said they would not comment because Ige and the Department of Transportation are “clients,” and that they “would not be able to discuss legal advice provided to our clients.”

The attorney general did not oppose the legislation while it was being debated, according to testimony from the four hearings held at the Legislature on the topic.

DOT officials gave conflicting testimony on the bill while it was going forward. On Feb. 15, department officials echoed helicopter industry concerns, saying that the bill would improperly interfere with FAA jurisdiction.

“The DOT has no authority to establish rules or offer contract terms that attempts to manage flight operations of helicopter operators,” the agency said.

But at subsequent hearings, on Feb. 24, March 18 and March 30, the agency said in written testimony that it supported the intent of the bill.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, which is the cabinet-level parent agency that oversees the Federal Aviation Administration, did not respond to a request for comment.

The state has never collected any information on the extent of helicopter tour activity, so individual citizens have tried to do it themselves.

Barbara Mayer, a retired science teacher who has lived in Waimanalo since 1976, said she noticed a big increase in helicopter flyovers a few years ago and decided to measure it. She spent four days in August listening and watching for helicopters, using binoculars to determine if they were official or commercial, and counting those she determined to be tour aircraft.

Her records documented frequent, noisy flyovers by tourist helicopters. On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 12, for example, she was buzzed at 8:09, 9, 9:02, 9:25, 9:35, 9:41, 9:47, 9:57, 9:59, 10:16, 10:56, 10:58, 11, 11:18, 11:27 and 11:43. The afternoon continued the same, until 4:39, for a total of 44 flyovers that day.

“It’s intrusive and it never used to happen,” she said. “There’s been a big change. This is not just a Waimanalo problem, it’s all over Oahu and all over all the islands too.”

Told about the governor’s plan to veto the bill, Mayer said she was disappointed to hear it.

“The governor will veto data collection?” she said. “That’s unhealthy. You have a problem and you don’t know what the problem is.”

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that residents who want to give their opinion on the issue to the governor could write to him, and provided this link. The deadline for the veto is Tuesday.

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