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Air tour accidents in Hawaii decrease

The number of accidents involving air tour companies in Hawaii has decreased this decade compared to the previous 10 years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The number of accidents involving air tour companies in Hawaii has decreased this decade compared to the previous 10 years.

An annual average of 2.5 accidents of tour aircraft occurred over the last 10 years, down from 3.6 per year during the 1990s.

Nationally, there was an annual average of 13 air tour over the last decade, down from more than 18 per year over the previous decade, according to FAA statistics.

The improvement is being credited to advancements in aircraft technology, stricter Federal Aviation Administration rules and better dialogue between tour firms and regulators.

There were two air tour accidents in Hawaii last year. In mid-June, a plane crashed on the slopes of Mauna Loa that killed three. The National Transportation Safety Board has not released a report on the cause of the crash.

The second accident involved a forced landing by a helicopter in February near Hilo that resulted in minor injuries to five passengers.

Overall, there were 11 aviation accidents in the state last year, including six involving general or noncommercial aircraft.

The FAA implemented a special air tour rule in Hawaii in 1996 that established a range of safety requirements and procedures. They included requiring tour flights that travel over the ocean to be equipped with floats or to provide passengers with flotation gear.

The rules also set a minimum altitude of 1,500 feet and mandate that pilots file a helicopter performance plan before each flight and that passengers be given a briefing on water-ditching procedures.

Officials found the rule changes to be successful, so it was extended to air tour operators across the country two years ago.

But two fatal accidents in March 2007 involving Kauai tour helicopters spurred more action.

The incidents served "as a wake-up call for the air tour industry itself," said Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration's Western-Pacific Region.

The Hawaiian Islands are the perfect vacation destination for travelers of all types.

The FAA assigned a third of its inspection staff at its Honolulu office, or about seven inspectors, to monitor helicopter and fixed-wing air tour operations. They check for compliance with FAA regulations and at times conduct covert surveillance of air tour operations, Gregor said.

More inspectors are scheduled to be added in the next few months, he added.

About three or four years ago, Hawaii air tour operators started their own safety working group, and industry associations have developed programs to help air tour companies improve their safety practices, said Dave Chevalier, owner of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.

"There's been a very concerted effort on safety, more than ever before in the air tour industry, and maybe that's bearing fruit," said Chevalier, whose firm operates on four islands.