At the helicopter noise meeting in Hilo on Aug. 14, I watched a frustrated community express its anger at the helicopter tour industry once again, with no actual response from the industry. The anger is worse than it needs to be, and the response from industry is less than it should be, and these two things are closely related.
I was hoping to speak, but a mixup in sign-ins prevented me from speaking. So I will share my thoughts here.
I urge my fellow citizens to report every violation or disturbance to the Planenoise website that has been established: www.planenoise.com/hha.
Register them anyway, even though your complaints have been ignored for decades. And I urge the industry to recognize that most — perhaps 99 percent — of complaints will go unreported, and any complaints received is just the tip of the iceberg, because most residents have long ago concluded that complaining is a waste of time, and both industry and regulators will do nothing in response.
I repeat my long-standing recommendations to the local industry and regulators.
1. Provide altitude and noise meters to be located in responsible hands on the ground in affected areas. For years, complaints have been dismissed because when an enforcer shows up days later, guess what? The helicopter is not still there! This systematic denial of complaints has been useful to the industry but has elevated frustration levels to unacceptable.
2. The Department of Health should revise its position of ignoring these noise complaints. It could do its job and protect people’s health by monitoring noise. The state Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have no jurisdiction over noise outside of airports, but the DOH does. Why not protect our health and provide meaningful regulation?.
3. Our congressional delegation should push the FAA to establish flight restrictions, as have been done on Long Island and Crater Lake, to protect the impacted people on the ground.
4. The tour industry should begin to be a good neighbor. Right now, offer a portion of flights offshore “ocean and lava” tours, costing a bit more and reducing the impact. A simple act such as this would not harm the industry and would show good faith to the community that it is at least trying. If they reduced the noise impacts by even 20 percent, they would be showing good faith to the community, and it would go a long way.
I note that some companies, such as Paradise Helicopters, has helped the community with rescues, evacuation assistance, public interest photography, and donations to the community. If others were as neighborly, we would have fewer complaints.
The solution will not be at either extreme. There will not be an end to tour helicopters, and the tour industry cannot keep ignoring its impacts. At the risk of sounding like a politician, the solution is somewhere in the middle. The tour companies should take some reasonable steps now, before being compelled.
In addition to the longstanding concerns, the Puna community being overflown is in a crisis and suffering from a profound sense of PTSD from loss of homes, loss of livelihood, and destruction of our neighborhood. The tour industry profits from the crisis, but no benefits go to the community affected, and all the negative effects fall on them.
The industry has a moral obligation to be good neighbors and be considerate about their effects.
At the meeting, we were all surprised at seeing several seemingly normal people express threats or thoughts of violence.
While those speaking in public are not the ones who would take such matters in their own hands, the feelings expressed are shared by many, some less stable than these. I cannot believe the pilots and tour companies are OK with engendering such emotions in their neighbors. Do they really want their neighbors to feel this way about them? I hope they can see it’s time to do something.
Right now, improvements could be made by flying some routes offshore, flying higher over populated areas, and installing noise-reduction equipment. If the industry changes its behavior to show some concern for those below, I hope the community will acknowledge such efforts.
The roundtable process proposed at the meeting is a good thing. The lack of invitation to Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono (HICoP) members to be at the table is a mistake, and the lack of any small action to accommodate the community is inexcusable.
I want to thank the helicopter industry for coming to the table to discuss the issue, and the FAA and other regulators for taking this seriously, especially Ross Higashi of the State department of Transportation’s Airports Division for being more attentive to this issue than any government official in my memory.
His concern is rare and perhaps unique!
And I thank Bob Ernst and HICOP, and the others who attended, for making enough noise to get the players to the table.
Russell Ruderman is a state senator representing Puna and parts of Ka‘u.