Rep. Cynthia Thielen
September 19, 2020
TESTIMONY TO THE HAWAII AIR NOISE & SAFETY TASK FORCE
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Thursday, September 24, 2020
By Representative Cynthia Thielen
As a Hawai‘i State Representative for District 50 (Kailua, Kaneohe Bay), I speak for thousands of Windward Oahu residents who have been negatively impacted by commercial air tours. After one tour helicopter crashed in the middle of Kailua town, I received hundreds of calls and emails from constituents legitimately worried about the safety of their families and homes. This, added to the incessant buzz of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft flying over residential neighborhoods, needs to be immediately addressed and resolved by this Task Force. Without a doubt, the lack of regulation and lucrative nature of these commercial helicopter tours have created a “Wild West” in the sky.
When Legislative Committee Members heard bills addressing helicopter noise, numerous residents testified about their diminished quality of life. Many said they could not hear television programs or have conversations in their own homes when helicopters fly over, which can occur in some neighborhoods multiple times an hour. Some noted their animals are disturbed, their kids can’t concentrate on their schoolwork, and those wishing to sleep cannot during the day. On the Big Island by Volcano National Park, one man said the helicopter tours start before he has his breakfast and last throughout the day, making his life “miserable.”
What regulation is in place for commercial tour helicopters? Outside of some minimum-altitude-level guidelines, barely anything. With no flight plans, no limits on frequency, and little to no enforcement or accountability for pilots who violate the few rules in place, neighborhoods are inundated with noise, and residents overwhelmingly feel that their privacy is being violated from hovering helicopters. Something must be done, not only for the peace of mind of our residents, but for the safety of our neighborhoods.
Although helicopters fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration once in flight, there are also steps the state and counties can take. The FAA could implement a Special Federal Aviation Regulation or create place-specific rules as it’s done along the east coast of Long Island. Due to the frequency of flights from New York City to the Hamptons that pass over residences on Long Island, Sen. Chuck Schumer in response to constituent complaints, became an advocate for better managing the helicopter traffic. The FAA ultimately passed new rules, providing a specific offshore flight route for the helicopters, and minimum-altitude levels of 2,500 feet over land and 3,000 feet over water (the minimum-flight altitude observed over residences in Hawaii is only 1,500 feet).
SFARs for national parks and the surrounding areas that often see a deluge of commercial-tour helicopters in Hawaii is not only appropriate, but also necessary for compliance with the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000, requiring the FAA to create air-tour plans or enter voluntary agreements with commercial-tour companies.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono have attempted to sue the FAA to comply with this act. Oral arguments were scheduled for the U.S. Court of Appeals in November 2018, but were cancelled. The groups are currently re-filing the petition.
Since the implementation of the National Park Air Tour Management Act was delayed, it has allowed commercial tours to continue unabated. Volcano National Park recorded 15,489 helicopter tour flights in 2016, which averages to 42 flights daily. Considering they generally only fly during the day, it breaks down to three to four flights hourly over the same general areas.
It’s clear that action is needed regarding the lack of rules and regulations surrounding these commercial helicopter tours. The various scopes of government jurisdiction, ranging from federal to state to county, can play a unique role in possibly addressing the helicopter noise problem in the islands.
It isn’t fair to the neighborhoods in areas of natural beauty to concede peace and quiet on a daily basis to accommodate a very noisy, invasive leisure activity. Through cooperation and common-sense rule and regulation passage, tour companies can run their businesses and residents can enjoy quieter skies.