[ OUR OPINION ]
Chopper flight levels
should be flexible
HELICOPTER tour operators have been annoyed about a federal rule that requires that they fly at least 1,500 feet above the ground, with some exceptions. The rule has been temporary since its adoption in 1994, but the Federal Aviation Administration wants to make it permanent after the current extension expires next month. Despite complaints from the tour operators, the rules seems to have been effective and should be made permanent, with continued flexibility.
The government is considering making permanent a nine-year temporary rule requiring tour helicopters to fly at least 1,500 feet above the ground.
Noise was not an issue in the FAA's decision to impose the rule, even though Safari Helicopter Tours argued in court that the agency had "secretly attempted to establish a one-state noise rule in the guise of a safety rule." The FAA took the stance that safety was the only reason for the rule, following a three-year period in the early 1990s in which 20 air tour accidents resulted in 24 deaths. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rule last year.
While complaints about noise were not the impetus for the rule, they have been the overwhelming source of its support. Environmentalists were the rule's most vocal proponents, with the Sierra Club citing studies showing that noise is disruptive to both hikers and nesting birds.
Dave Chevalier, head of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, accepts the fact that noise is a legitimate concern, and he has ordered 10 new, less noisy helicopters at $8 million each. He told the Star-Bulletin's Russ Lynch that he placed the order "because people are conscious of the environment" and will pay a little more if they know it is not creating a nuisance.
Accepted deviations from the rule also seem to recognize noise as a factor. For example, air tour operators of single-engine helicopters have been granted permission to dip to as low as 500 feet above terrain known to be devoid of people or vehicles. The FAA has said safety has not been compromised by those deviations because additional measures have been taken.
The FAA has maintained, and the appeals court agreed, that passengers flown at higher altitudes are safer because the pilots have more time to find a suitable landing site in an emergency. The rule has drawn criticism because of what pilots say is the risk of mid-air collisions between choppers flying at the 1,500-foot level. One kind of exception that has been allowed is to avoid "clustering" of aircraft at that level.
Tour operators are allowed to enter otherwise "flight-free zones" of national parks if their aircraft are relatively quiet. While that policy has upset environmentalists who complain that those aircraft are not quiet enough, a similar rationale, with more acceptable noise-level standards, could be used to allow helicopters to fly at lower altitudes outside of parks.
Such an exception, applied reasonably, could create an incentive for tour operators to follow Chevalier's lead and for helicopter manufacturers to achieved lower noise levels. Hiking areas should be protected from noise without destroying Hawaii's air tour industry.