Tour he­li­copter noise com­plaints put is­sue on county’s radar

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By JEFF HANSEL

The he­li­copter tourism in­dus­try on the Big Is­land is suf­fer­ing some grow­ing pains.

Tourists take he­li­copters to Hawaii Is­land’s most awe-in­spir­ing views — cre­at­ing busi­ness for East Hawaii restau­rants, ho­tels and night­clubs along the way. The $200- to $300-per-per­son tours of­fer bird’s-eye views of won­ders such as the highly pop­u­lar Kamokuna lava ocean en­try.

But for some res­i­dents, more tourism means more he­li­copter noise — and they’re not happy about it.

They com­plain that tour he­li­copters are too loud and fly too low.

An ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, tour op­er­a­tors, Hawaii County Coun­cil mem­bers and Mayor Harry Kim are try­ing var­i­ous ways to ad­dress the prob­lem.

Coun­cil mem­bers have writ­ten to the state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion ask­ing to put pres­sure on the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to stop

he­li­copter flights over res­i­den­tial ar­eas.

But he­li­copter op­er­a­tors say fly­ing over the ocean would be dan­ger­ous be­cause pi­lots need to be within “vis­ual con­tact” of land at all times. Shore­line squalls make that tough.

Tour he­li­copters gen­er­ally are sup­posed to stay higher than 1,500 feet above homes, ex­cept dur­ing take­offs and land­ings, ac­cord­ing to the state Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

FAA-Honolulu Front Line Man­ager Darett Kanayama said tour he­li­copters op­er­ate safely over land, at proper al­ti­tudes and with deci­bel lev­els of a pass­ing car or truck.

“When you see some­thing fly­ing through the air, peo­ple get ner­vous be­cause they think it’s go­ing to fall and crash onto their prop­erty,” he said.

The group Hawaii Is­land Coali­tion Malama Pono, or HICoP, has been col­lect­ing com­plaints about fly­overs and noise and is lob­by­ing to get he­li­copter tours to stop fly­ing over res­i­den­tial ar­eas.

Sup­port­ers waved signs Tues­day af­ter­noon near the Hilo In­ter­na­tional Air­port, de­cry­ing he­li­copter noise. That fol­lowed a sep­a­rate Tues­day morn­ing meet­ing Mayor Harry Kim had with tour he­li­copter op­er­a­tors.

Kim said he wants to min­i­mize con­flict.

“Put your swords away” and HICoP also will have to “put their swords away” so that, as a community, the Big Is­land can work to­gether to solve the prob­lem, he told the group.

“I’m try­ing to do ev­ery­thing I can to pre­vent a war be­tween this side and that side,” Kim said.

He asked what op­er­a­tors can do to keep tourism strong but still ad­dress noise com­plaints.

“You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” Kim said, ac­knowl­edg­ing the im­por­tance of to­day’s tourism in­dus­try on the Big Is­land in the con­text of eco­nomic dev­as­ta­tion after the su­gar in­dus­try’s col­lapse.

Paul Mor­ris, Sun­shine He­li­copters di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions, said Kauai has an ef­fec­tive sys­tem that shows where he­li­copter-re­lated com­plaints orig­i­nate. Flight paths avoid noise-sen­si­tive ar­eas once they’re iden­ti­fied. Tour op­er­a­tors hope to cre­ate a sim­i­lar sys­tem on the Big Is­land.

Mor­ris said he­li­copters could pre­vi­ously fly with­out both­er­ing any­one over ar­eas such as Moun­tain View. But new hous­ing con­struc­tion is­land­wide means more home­own­ers ex­pe­ri­ence fly­overs.

Hank Bruck­ner, state gen­eral avi­a­tion of­fi­cer at HDOT, han­dles com­plaints from the state’s air­craft noise hot­line, which can be reached by call­ing 888-697-7813. Most of the com­plaints are about he­li­copters (rather than jets or planes, which he also re­views).

Some­times a tour he­li­copter flies low when char­tered by law en­force­ment to help with searches or map­ping, he said. Other times, he­li­copters are on ap­proach to an air­port.

Laura Wil­liams-May said her Hilo house gets lots of fly­overs. She was one of about seven peo­ple protest­ing with HICoP on Tues­day near the air­port.

“There goes one,” she said as a he­li­copter flew above. “It went right over my house.”

Bruck­ner said he han­dled two com­plaints Fri­day from res­i­dents, like Wil­liams-May, who are frus­trated.

When there’s a cruise ship at Hilo Har­bor, Bruck­ner said, he might re­view three or four com­plaints daily be­cause more tours in he­li­copters are head­ing to the lava ocean en­try. But sev­eral days some­times go by with no com­plaints.

Fed­eral spokesman Ian Gre­gor said the FAA is al­ready “hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions” with the state DOT about a community he­li­copter noise round­table. HICoP is try­ing to gather sup­port from all Big Is­land county and state elected of­fi­cials to spur such meet­ings and in­crease pub­lic at­ten­tion.

“We’re look­ing for 100 per­cent sup­port from the elected of­fices from Hawaii Is­land — and we’re al­most there,” said Bob Ernst, HICoP pres­i­dent and board mem­ber.

HICoP al­ready touts County Coun­cil mem­bers’ sup­port.

Puna Coun­cil­woman Jen Rug­gles, for ex­am­ple, wrote to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz say­ing that in 2016, “15,489 over­flights were re­ported for Hawaii Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park, the most of any in­di­vid­ual na­tional park in the na­tion.”

Ha­makua Coun­cil­woman Va­lerie Poin­dex­ter said she’s taken many calls from District 1 con­stituents “im­pacted by the overhead noise of tour he­li­copters fly­ing in­land and over their homes.”

He­li­copter op­er­a­tors say they’re form­ing a “fly neigh­borly” non­profit called the Hawaii Is­land He­li­copter As­so­ci­a­tion that will work with community mem­bers.

Kim said he’ll schedule a meet­ing and in­vite the pub­lic, HICoP and tour com­pa­nies once the he­li­copter op­er­a­tors’ non­profit gets go­ing.

In the mean­time, said Troy Scott, a fa­cil­i­ties divi­sion chief and pi­lot for Par­adise He­li­copters, the startup non­profit will of­fer ed­u­ca­tion about tour he­li­copters, seek to vary flight paths, con­tinue heav­ily in­vest­ing in noise-re­duc­ing tech­nol­ogy and cre­ate an on­line fo­rum for com­plaints.

HICoP, for its part, is fight­ing on mul­ti­ple fronts.

For ex­am­ple, it’s ap­peal­ing de­nial of a con­tested case hear­ing re­lated to he­li­copter park­ing and it filed le­gal pa­pers against the FAA for not lim­it­ing Hawaii Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park over­flights.

The group is host­ing a “rally” from 6-8 p.m. Sept. 9 at Keaau El­e­men­tary School.

HOLLYN JOHN­SON/ Tri­bune-Herald

Bob Ernst of Hawaii Is­land Coali­tion Malama Pono, cen­ter, and other mem­bers of HICoP wave signs Tues­day on the side of the en­trance road to Hilo In­ter­na­tional Air­port in protest against tour he­li­copter noise.

KIM

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