Air tourism industry newbies blamed for problems
by Nathan Eagle – THE GARDEN ISLAND
A group of residents recently banded together to call for a boycott of the air tourism industry until the companies respect “fly neighborly agreements.”
Multi-party talks this spring failed to resolve the decades-old issue, forcing the need to take stronger action, coalition members said.
“There is no reason why air tourism needs to create undue noise and stress over residential neighborhoods and scenic environmental areas,” Ha‘ena resident Johnny Wichman said. “Air tours could take routes that don’t impact residents and visitors, but the problem is that many air tour operators just don’t seem to care.”
But long-time aerial tour company owners on Kaua‘i say they do care, they have not heard complaints directly from residents and suspect the problem stems from a few bad apples bringing the entire industry down.
The group of community members and organizations, called STOP DAT!, formed Wednesday. Its mission is to Stop Disrespectful Air Tourism.
Wainiha resident Barbara Robeson said there has been a long history of air tour noise problems.
“In the late 1980s, and again in the late 1990s, voluntary ‘fly neighborly’ programs were instituted to keep helicopters from flying over populated areas,” she said. “But the tour industry didn’t keep its word either time. The helicopters soon resumed their flights over residential areas. And now the problem has become far worse, as noisy biplanes, fixed wing airplane tours and ultralight planes fly over our towns and beaches.”
County Office of Economic Development Director Beth Tokioka said several months ago she attended a Ka Leo o Kaua‘i community outreach meeting in Hanalei where a number of residents relayed their frustration with the air tourism industry.
Although the county lacks direct jurisdiction, she said she talked to Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sue Kanoho and formed a plan to pull the air tourism companies together for a meeting in April.
Tokioka said she relayed the frustrations that the community members had voiced, asked the companies to revisit the fly neighborly agreements — programs asking the companies to fly routes acceptable to the community — and urged them to be more proactive in responding to complaints.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration on the North Shore,” Tokioka said yesterday. “For the most part, the air tourism industry is following the program and being community-minded but I don’t think that it’s 100 percent.”
She, along with some coalition members and helicopter tour company owners, said for whatever reason some of the new fixed wing aircraft companies are failing to fly neighborly.
It could be a lack of familiarity with the agreements, Tokioka said, but even one company choosing not to follow it creates a problem for the whole industry.
Fixed wing aircraft tour companies could not be reached for comment by press time.
“I’m hopeful at this point that we can have some positive dialogue between the companies and the community and, if necessary, the FAA,” she said. “It’s an issue that can be overcome. We can get back to a place where everyone can peacefully coexist.”
Curt Lofstedt, who has owned Island Helicopters Kauai since 1980, said the helicopter tour companies have met and decided to form an association in response to the residents’ concerns.
Plans are in the works, he said, to establish a phone hotline for people to call in complaints.
“If they called us direct and said someone flew over their place, we’d do something about it,” Lofstedt said. “But if we don’t get direct calls, there’s nothing we can really do.”
He said some new fixed wing companies sometimes stray from the fly neighborly agreements. The newly formed association wants them to join.
“We don’t fly over Hanalei Bay or the other areas they’re complaining about except in case of bad weather,” Lofstedt said. “It’s a vocal minority pushing this. We’re doing what we can.”
Tokioka said some of the challenges for community members in reporting violations directly to the companies is that it is difficult to identify the aircraft flying hundreds of feet overhead.
The STOP DAT! group says in a statement that the air tour industry has been unwilling and incapable of policing itself.
“Few of the operators are meeting their commitment to keep away from homes, neighborhoods and sacred sites,” said Carl Imparato, Hanalei-to-Ha’ena Community Association president. “We’ve lived with this abuse for far too long.”
Tokioka said aerial tours are a top visitor attraction on Kaua‘i.
“It’s an important part of our offering,” she said. “It would be a shame to deny that experience. But there’s a way to manage it.”
Tokioka said there needs to be an understanding among air tour colleagues that they either all succeed or all fail.
“Every now and then someone goes off the beaten path and everyone suffers because of it,” she said. “Sometimes it takes extreme measures to get really productive dialogue.”
She said the phone hotline was a “positive step.”
“We’re willing to talk to anybody,” Lofstedt said. “We’re trying to make a living.”
Kalihiwai resident Makaala Kaaumoana said the problem has worsened over the past few years.
“The noise impacts all of us, residents and tourists alike,” she said. “No one likes it. Visitors to Kalalau and Koke‘e complain about feeling invaded as the aircraft fly into remote valleys and through the canyon.”
STOP DAT! plans to kick off its campaign with an informational picket at 3 p.m., Monday, by the entrance to the Lihu‘e Airport.
“All of us recognize the importance of tourism to Kaua‘i’s economy,” Imparato said. “In the end, we will either have a respectful air tourism industry or no air tourism industry. We seek the former, but the choice will be made by the industry.”
For more information, visit www.stopdat.org
• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or email@example.com