Hawai’i Rep. Thielen might use some Lōkahi to reach safer skies with FAA

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Here Are Practical Steps To Make Hawaii’s Skies Safer

HI Representative ill-advised as to what State can do

FAA preempted aviation safety

With Lōkahi Thielen might accomplish more

By Representative Cynthia Thielen

Hawaii State Representative | District 50 | Kailua-Kaneohe Bay







“This year’s aviation tragedies have claimed lives and shattered families. The burning wreckage from the deadly helicopter crash in Kailua’s residential community reminded us that Hawaii’s helicopter industry still functions like the “Wild West,” bereft of adequate regulations to protect bystanders and passengers alike.


Hawaii’s unruly helicopters aren’t a new problem. Over 30 years ago, the 1988 Legislature faced similar proliferation of nearly unregulated tour helicopter companies and took steps to promote safety, reduce hazards, and control congestion.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation developed the 1989 “Hawaii State Helicopter System Plan,” which identified a variety of safety, air congestion, and noise pollution problems and outlined solutions to be pursued by federal and state government. The DOT was responsible for implementing the plan’s recommendations and complying with the statutory mandate to update the plan every five years, but they succumbed to pressure from the industry and conceded to the almost-lawless environment we have today.

Helicopter industry professionals and critics of tighter restrictions often argue that aviation regulation can only come from the federal government. While the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress retain jurisdiction over the most impactful regulation like flight paths, noise requirements, and elevation restrictions, the 1989 Helicopter Master Plan clearly outlined solutions for state and county governments. Correspondence with Congressman Ed Case confirmed the Master Plan’s suggestions for local government.

Immediately following April’s tragedy, a coalition of Windward Oahu lawmakers and I began pursuing solutions as did Congressman Case. Information given to Congressman Case and passed onto us from the FAA and the Congressional Research Office confirmed that tour helicopter ‘operations are largely unregulated, the operators have shown no inclination to self-regulation, and it is clear that substantial regulation at the federal, state and local level is necessary.’”

Update Helicopter Plan


the DOT can still make meaningful progress toward regulating tour operators by exercising their control over airport leases and helicopter licenses.

The second solution involves closing a loophole that allows Hawaii’s helicopter tour companies to avoid paying the general excise tax GET. The U.S. Constitution largely prevents states from taxing aviation transportation companies because it would interfere with interstate commerce.

I already have legislation on my desk for the 2020 session that will close this tax loophole, subjecting helicopter companies to our state excise tax.


Third, the counties can also play an important role in creating safer skies. Because counties share responsibility for much of Hawaii’s land use regulations, the counties can examine how their zoning ordinances relate to helicopter pads on county and private lands.

Rep. Thielen’s characterization of Congressional Research Office [STET: there is no CSO, there is a Congressional Research Service[1]] and FAA to say that “substantial regulation at the federal, state and local level is necessary” defies logic and the FAAct. While this may be a “practical” solution, it is highly likely to be illegal. Congress enacted the deregulation Act of 1978 and made it abundantly clear that the states are preempted from regulating the safety of aircraft.

There are a number of things which the State of Hawai’i and her counties MAY do that will foster safety:

  1. Working with the FAA airports office and using AIP Grants, develop a plan which maximizes the safety and environmental values of existing and, in particular, new helipads and helistops. That is not to regulate, but to promote aviation safety in a Hawai’i Helicopter Master Plan. By designing a network of facilities at sites which minimize community impact, the State will reach its goal positively.





2. The editorial of the Representative only mentioned the existing operators in passing and negatively. There is nothing to prevent these companies to voluntarily exceed the FAA standards. Indeed, the Hawaii Helicopter Association was formed, among other reasons, to enhance the safety of their flights. Instead of ignoring them, a far more effective strategy would be to become familiar with their efforts and seek to collaborate.








3.There is a lot being done by a public-private team to improve helicopters nationwide, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST). The team establishes partnerships with significant helicopter operations and encourage development and implementation of safety interventions by sharing lessons learned through accident analysis. There is no reason why the State and the HHA could not become more active in this proactive coalition. Here are some progress reports on the USHST efforts:


Helicopter Safety Results Show That Data-Driven Processes Can Reduce Accidents

Helicopter Team Sets High Goals For Safety Improvement

Helicopter Safety Team Is Moving The Safety Needle

USHST Responds To Recent Spate Of Helicopter Problems




4. Not least of all, but the State can establish a relationship with the Flight Standards District Office[2] (FSDO) Hawaii. It is an office of 18 fulltime safety professionals and lists Hawaii Air Tour Common Procedures Manual (PDF) among its special assets. The 2008 manual is 169 pages long with prescribed operational procedures, many photographs of areas with instructions and very detailed maps.










5.The State might ask to meet with


  • the FAA staff to share concerns about specific flight patterns, offer suggestions about future heliport/helipad developments and to collaborate on how the Part 91 operations might be improved. Working with the FSDO would be an infinitely more effective way to reduce the risk of the HI helicopters!!! The office is located close to HNL and not far from downtown.
  • Hawai’i and Alaska are the two states most dependent on aviation. Given the importance of all flights, but in particular helicopters, to the State’s economy and safety of its citizens, Rep. Thielen might well consider spearheading an effort to work more closely with the FAA and the HHA; collaboration is a far more efficient method of reducing risks and minimizing environmental impacts.
  • Lōkahi is a term of significance in the Hawaiian culture. Its essence is to come together regardless of one’s differences to create something of value and for a collective advantage. Rep. Thielen might use Lōkahi to bring the FAA’s safety regulatory skills to be more compatible with her constituents’ ala pono.


This is a task which might be better facilitated by folks who speak the jargon of the FAA.





[1] A search of the CSR data base for Rep. Case and for Tour Helicopters indicated that there was no report there.

[2] All FSDOs are subject to realignment (https://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/avs/offices/afx/realignment_info/), but by calling the Honolulu Office they will direct you to the right resources.

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