Friday, August 1, 2008

Musings: Nailing the Noisemakers

A stunning sunrise ushered in this dew-drenched, chilly dawn, which was preceded at 12:14 a.m. by the new moon and total solar eclipse, although the latter obviously was not visible here.

As we walked, Koko kept her nose pressed to the wet grass and I kept my eye on the sky, where towering piles of clouds in both the northeast and southwest were infused with gold and pink by the sun’s slow emergence, giving them the appearance of something far more solid, like craggy floating mountains, their peaks and crevices defined by light.

I love to witness this continual rebirthing, to see it all start fresh again, and new. It feels to me like an ongoing reiteration of hope.

I had a similar reaction to the news, discussed yesterday afternoon on KKCR and reported in today’s Garden Island, that a group called Stop-DAT — the letters stand for Disrespectful Air Tourism — has formed to once again try and bring some order into the noisy chaos of Kauai’s skies.

The din caused by Kauai’s thriving air tourism industry is nothing new. Residents began complaining at least two decades ago, when little Kauai gained the dubious distinction of having more sightseeing flights than any other island, a title it most likely still holds.

Then, the troublemakers were helicopters that flew any kine, with nary a thought to those who lived below. Now they’ve been joined by fixed-wing airplanes, biplanes and ultralights, all seeking a piece of the lucrative market.

At the crux of the issue, then and now, is the state’s unwillingness to regulate the air tourism industry and the industry’s refusal to regulate itself. The public, with no place to complain and no agency responding when they do, ends up getting screwed.

Back in the 1990s, when the issue became very heated and numerous meetings were held around the state, the FAA did come up with a rule —SFAR-71 — that prohibits tour aircraft from flying any lower than 1,500 feet above any person, private property or natural feature in the state.

Meanwhile, “Fly Neighborly” plans were drafted that specified the routes tour aircraft should take to minimize their impact on residents. But those flight paths were voluntarily and the FAA didn’t enforce SFAR-71, so it wasn’t long before the industry simply blew them both off.

Which brings us to the current free-for-all, with helicopters and other aircraft flying from dawn to dusk, mauka to makai, unless the weather is so cloudy and rainy that they can’t fly at all. They cruise over beaches and mountains, towns and rural neighborhoods, into Kalalau Valley and through Waimea Canyon. And if a tourist wants a photo op or better view, they’ll fly lower, loop around, double back.

And all the while the air tour industry is raking in the dough at the expense of those living in the prettiest places, or enroute to them, who must endure the constant drone of one aircraft after another flying overhead.

Tired of two decades of broken promises, a group of concerned residents met recently with the tour industry to see if they could work things out. They couldn’t. They turned to the mayor’s office, which stepped in “but got nowhere,” said Hanalei resident Carl Imperato, speaking on the radio yesterday.

“Apparently the industry doesn’t care enough to resolve the problem,” he said, noting astutely: “It’s obvious we’ll get no help with this from government.”

So they formed Stop-DAT and now plan “to go after the industry where it counts: in the pocketbook,” Imperato said. The group’s first move is an informational picketing at the airport intersection between 3 and 5 p.m. on Monday.

They’re not trying to shut down the industry, Imperato said, “but there’s really no reason why air tourism has to be done disrespectfully.”

The industry, predictably, responded in exactly the same way it has for the past 20 years: blaming a few rogue operators for the problem and a few residents for the outcry, forming an association and proposing a hotline for complaints.

Here’s the spiel from Curt Lofstedt, owner of Island Helicopters Kauai, as reported in the Garden Island:

“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.”

Yawn. How many times are they going to trot out this same tired non-response? We’ve had hotlines in the past, and the complaints went nowhere. And why do they keep lying about where they’re flying, as if we don’t see them with our own eyes, hear them with our own ears?

Stop-DAT is pushing for no flights on Sundays and holidays, and to have helicopters fly one-mile offshore. They’re radical proposals, but as even the county’s Director of Economic Development, Beth Tokioka, noted: “Sometimes it takes extreme measures to get really productive dialogue.”

The air tourism industry has long been a scourge, in my view. It’s fuel-guzzling, unsafe, incredibly intrusive, harmful to wildlife and the worst expression of lazy, lookey-lou tourism. I’m heartened to see that a new group has formed to again take it on. With the support of those who appreciate peace and quiet, perhaps this arrogant industry can finally be reigned in.


Katy said...

I am glad to see the Stop DAT guys taking some action.

I don't understand this idea that for the price of a ticket a person can anywhere they want, any time, and screw the people who are impacted by it.

I haven't travelled much in my life but it's never occurred to me that wherever I visit I have the run of the place.

We have to start caring more about values that can't be fixed to a price.

Andy Parx said...

Try three decades- we first tried to stop them in the 70’s.

The problem is that when you do get local and/or state officials involved they find out they are powerless to do anything- only the FAA can regulate according to federal law... even though the interstate commerce clause is obviously inoperable here.

They idiocy of identifying specific aircraft is really galling- If somehow the observer was knowledgeable enough- and could see- the make and model much less the color of the helicopter or plane they then ask “and what was the number”- hell half the time you can’t even tell where the noise if coming from much less read a little number at 1000 feet... of know where on the aircraft to look for it

They must have specific flight plans and written logs of where they are- a single FAA GPS system could chart it so that is a person reports their location the authorities should be able to tell which aircraft it was- so obviously there’s some collusion. between the operators and FAA

But guess what- no aircraft, no FAA regulatory jobs... so you figure it out.

At least that’s the conclusion I came to when I actually did an investigative report on TV after a friend of mine who was a pilot died in the early 90’s on Na Pali. Someone took me up in a helicopter and we staked out a place he said was common for violations.

I video taped an obvious violation of the S-FAR rules. I sent it to the FAA, tried to follow up- I even did some digging and identified the only helicopter it could have been at that time by getting someone to surreptitiously gave me the “private” log- and nothing, nada, bupkis from the FAA - despite two follow-ups I couldn’t even get a response.

I keep wondering how long until some pissed off local gets out a rifle and takes things into his own hands

Anonymous said...

Where's my rocket launcher?

Anonymous said...

You lent it to the anti-HSF brigade.

Pete Antonson said...

Joan, the height restriction was in effect long before I became an Air Traffic Controller in 1969. It is only marginally effective for noise and not meant for that purpose. Anything, other than a glider, is very noisy passing over at 1500 feet. Mostly, "flying low" is a very subjective concept unless you've spent day after day watching aircraft in a landing pattern at that altitude. Also, there are several, and important, exceptions such as remaining clear of clouds and other aircraft. There are excempted circumstances that only the pilot of that aircraft could be aware of.
The paradox is that if you can read the tail numbers (which are smaller than in my day) then the aircraft is not passing directly over you and you are not the "injured party." Visual Flight Rule aircraft are not tightly managed in the way Andy supposes. Having expectations, without a tail number is like telling the Kauai Police that "A silver Toyota Pickup nearly hit me" and expecting them to be able to do something.+

Anonymous said...

> I don't understand this idea that for the price of a ticket a person can [go] anywhere they want, any time, and screw the people who are impacted by it. <

Oh, it'll come to you. Merely adjust your view of the world to make yourself the most important person in it; make your concern for others conditional on if it inhibits you doing what you want; and you'll have it.

There, see? Simple. ;)

Anonymous said...

It works! Millions of tourists/year can't be wrong.

Maybe they could just send their money over and stay home, eh?

Can't live with 'em (some apparently can't) and can't live without their money. could possibly curb tourism more by county mandate and make up the revenue shortfall with lots more $$$$ mansions and acreage with high tax bills!

Anonymous said...

> Millions of tourists/year can't be wrong. <

Millions of tourists/year fill your sewage works with their waste, your roads with their fumes, your beaches with their trash, your air with their noise, your ears with their arrogance, your business with bucks and me with disgust -- and I'm a mainlander. One who for decades left the larger part of his heart on Kauai between visits, and who can no longer visit for the in-your-face outrage of what tourists and tourism have done to the land and the people.

Catering to tourists may be the best business your island has right now, but don't ever think it that isn't a Devil's Bargain. It is voracious, it is insatiable, and it will have its blood payment from you if you allow it too much freedom.

Anonymous said...

What can you expect in a state where tourism is the #1 moneymaker, the military is #1 employer and the state itself is #2 employer.

I don't...and can't...see any change.

Anonymous said...

But getting back to the subject....

On most issues I'm usually on the other side of the table from Katy, Joan & Andy, but in this case I'm totally with them. Noisy aircraft is a major negative impact on (what I believe is) the vast majority of the people who only wish quiet enjoyment of the otherwise wonderful serenity of this island. With any enterprise, we need to weigh its freedoms and benefits with its negative impacts (if any) on society. We have long regulated loud noise like blasting music at night or barking dogs because it impacts those within earshot by reducing or eliminating their ability to get a good night’s sleep. To me, the regulation and elimination of loud intrusive noise caused by SOCIALLY UNNECESSARY aircraft is essential to our quality of life here on Kauai. We’ve recently enacted a law to regulate and help reduce the negative impacts of vacation rentals in rural communities. Now we need to organize and effective movement to further regulate and reduce the intrusive aspects of the air tour industry.

Anonymous said...

mahalo for ....'getting back to the subject....

On most issues I'm usually on the other side of the table from Katy, Joan & Andy, but in this case I'm totally with them. Noisy aircraft is a major negative impact on (what I believe is) the vast majority of the people who only wish quiet enjoyment of the otherwise wonderful serenity of this island. With any enterprise, we need to weigh its freedoms and benefits with its negative impacts (if any) on society......Now we need to organize and effective movement to further regulate and reduce the intrusive aspects of the air tour industry."

see you at the airport on monday!

Anonymous said...

"Now we need to organize and effective movement to further regulate and reduce the intrusive aspects of the air tour industry."

"see you at the airport on monday!"

So much for that movement.

Katy said...

I have confidence that the Stop DAT coalition can win its objectives. The issue has a broad mass appeal. As you can see from comments, it cuts across political lines. It also has the advantage of going up a relatively small industry with relatively few employees.

On top of that, it is being spearheaded by some very good community organizers. I am certain that they will stage a strong and multi-faceted campaign, including visible demonstrations to raise awareness and support, like the action at the airport. I'm sure it won't end there...

I have no illusions about my own political tendencies appealing to a minority in the US. So I can pretty humbly admit that my opinions are not going to garner the kind of broad mass appeal that is so helpful to a campaign like this. But hey, I gotta be me. I do, however, admire and have confidence in the Stop DAT guys and wish them success.

Anonymous said...

The regulations on helicopter and plane tours are complicated. I have researched them a little in my effort to not let the the airtour industry have the last word. Here is how I would summarize it:

The FAA (where F means federal) essentially has jurisdiction over all non-military airspace above the 50 states. Only the FAA can regulate planes and helicopters in the air, not the state nor the county.

However, due to administrative rules, the FAA may only regulate based on safety, not on noise or any other nuisance. In other words, airspace is mostly unregulated. Our very own Safari helicopters sued the FAA over the "noise and cultural" provisions of SFAR-71. They didn't like being regulated and tried to use this attack to have the regulation voided. Fortunately, the FAA kept the regulations of SFAR-71 by rewriting them as safety measures.

SFAR-71 states that no flightseeing tour shall fly at less than 1500' (all altitudes are "above ground level") unless the company has been granted a deviation based on its safety training and record. With that deviation (which they all have), the company pilots may fly at 500' above unpopulated terrain or 200' above a knife-edge ridge within certain designated areas. The 1500' limit still applies to any place where people are expected to be: roads, trails, and campgrounds.

The designated areas for low flying are certain scenic uninhabited regions, such as all of Waimea Canyon, parts of Na Pali, and the Wailua gorge (aka Blue Hole). If anyone has the map of these areas or knows how they were chosen, I'd love to see/hear it.

SFAR-71 also mandated floating pontoons or lifevests on passengers (not under seats) for any flights sufficiently far over water. Normally, tours don't need these, but quite often they deviate over water due to clouds or pilots changing the course for a more exciting view. It wasn't until that last accident where a chopper fell into the ocean and 3 people drowned that I started seeing pontoons appear on all the helicopters.

You can read more about all this on my blog, in particular by following the links to the TGI letters.

I believe that the airtour industry will avoid any regulation it can unless forced to be more neighborly by community and economic pressure. I do believe they have changed their behavior in the past due to community complaints, but now with so much competition and certain areas being "unavoidable" on the basic tours (sorry Haena), they are probably reluctant. For example, there is a designated person on Maui to centralize all helicopter complaints, but not on Kauai.

Personally, I'm lucky enough to live outside the tour routes, although I am seeing more and more fixed-wing planes now. My main complaint is being woken up at 7am by chopper noise at the Kalalau campground, and being buzzed while on state trails in Waimea Canyon. In addition, I don't think having helicopter noise over the Kokee forest and Na Pali wilderness is good for the endagered bird species trying to survive there.