DOT, helicopter operators remain at odds

LIHU’E — More than five months after an April meeting produced more questions than answers, state Department of Transportation Airports Division (DOT-A) officials and local helicopter-tour operators are still not close to touching ground on plans for a multi-million-dollar improvement plan.

The two groups have not worked out two key issues that are seen as key to a proposed $7-million improvement plan for the facilities at Lihu’e Airport heliport.

The same players met Sept. 28 at Lihu’e Airport and clashed again over some long-standing problems.

At issue is the flight plan pilots will have to use if and when the actual construction commences. Also under contention is which operators will get additional helipad spaces, and how that list will determined.

Local helicopter-tour operators said the construction of more pads would impact sight lines and change flight patterns, forcing pilots to loop out more to the southwest after takeoff.

Moreover, they said their input was never sought in any public forum. State DOT-A officials reportedly told helicopter operators a meeting took place in 1999. The operators are reportedly asking for the documents pertinent to that meeting.

Will Squyres, owner of Will Squyres Helicopter Service, and others expressed concerns about flying over more populated and congested areas, including airport carrental areas, parking lots, and the proposed site of the expanded Kauai Lagoons residential and resort development.

“There are two issues. One is safety. The other is noise,” said Squyres. “It needs to be looked at in a public forum,” said Squyres. “We’re not flying there yet. Once we start taking off in that direction, there’s going to be a noise footprint. They (people on the ground) are going to come unglued.”

Tour operators told state officials there was insufficient clear space to land in case of emergency, and said the flight path would take them over the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club property more often, and that noise would become an issue.

It was uncertain whether Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials had signed off on the flight route.

DOT Public Information Officer Scott Ishikawa stopped short of saying the state had signed off on the alternate flight path.

Moses Akana of the FAA air traffic control section indicated at the heliport meeting that the helicopter flight departure under Kona (south) wind conditions are shown in the environmental assessment for the heliport, the same route he was suggesting at the meeting, according to Ishikawa.

Squyres called FAA representative Dave Ryan “way out of line” for soliciting the opinion of Patti and Dave Chevalier, principals of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. “They haven’t been here long enough to even care,” Squyres said.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters leaders are relative newcomers to the Kaua’i helicopter-tourism industry.

Local operators feel that officials with Heli USA Airways and Blue Hawaiian Helicopters have received preferential treatment in the allotment of helipad spaces, and that DOT-A leaders failed to subscribe to their own wait-list policy.

Several tour operators have been in business on Kaua’i for more than 20 years, and feel they merit helipad space based on seniority when new spaces open up.

Casey Reimer, general manager of Jack Harter Helicopters, one of the pioneer companies in the industry, said he had no qualms about competition, but stressed the need for a “level playing field.”

Donn Walker, FAA manager of communications and media relations, confirmed Monday that FAA officials received and accepted a Part 16 complaint filed by Paul Asmus, former owner of the now defunct South Seas Helicopters Inc., charging state officials with discrimination as state DOT-A leaders applied the allocation of helipad spots.

Walker said it will take three to four months, at a minimum, to review the complaint, and then formulate a response.

Given the history, and in some cases the enmity among the players involved, Laurie Yoshida, Gov. Linda Lingle’s Kaua’i liaison, volunteered to mediate the helipad issue among the helicopter-tour operators, and then report to state DOT officials.

The one thing that was decided at last week’s meeting was the request by local helicopter-tour operators to increase the width of the helicopter parking pads from 62.5 feet to 75.5 feet.

According to Ishikawa, the project was allocated at $7 million.

He said the bids had come in, and the lowest was $8.5 million. Ishikawa said the engineers must now modify and reduce the scope of the project, to lower the contract amount down to $7 million.

He said this might include removing the parking lots, decreasing the concrete work within the project and replacing it with asphalt, in addition to other options.

In an earlier interview, Ishikawa said the project also calls for the realignment of the south portion of Ahukini Road to allow for additional helipad lease lots. The DOT Airports Division officials will provide water, electricity, sewer and telecommunications lines to the property lines of each lease lot, he added.

The current project, as it stands, will include helicopter pads for nine helicopter operators.

There are 20 helipads currently available at the Lihu’e Airport heliport, and of those, at least six are not used, according to information provided by the DOT.

Adding two more helipads was one topic at the April 15 meeting. But operators wondered why DOT officials would add more pads when some are not being utilized.

Ishikawa said in an earlier interview that leaders at Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, a Maui-based tour operator which began regular on-island flights on Kaua’i in March, had not been given any preferential treatment, and did not jump to the top of any waiting list for helipad usage when leaders of other local companies with more seniority have been waiting their turn, some for years.

Also discussed were the number of parking stalls to be allocated to each operator, and security issues.

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