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‘Relentless’ aircraft noise rattles quiet communities

County seeking solutions for increase in commercial flights, helicopter tours over islands

A Hawaiian Airlines jet approaches Kahului in July 2020. Residents are raising complaints over the noise generated by an increase in flights, as well as commercial tour operators over residential areas and farms. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Disrupted sleep and peace is becoming the new normal for some Maui County residents as increased flights by large and small aircraft carriers, as well as commercial tour operators over residential areas and farms, spark ongoing concerns.

“In the evenings, or in the early mornings, I wear earplugs to go to bed because that’s how I’ve dealt with being awakened by the noise,” Haiku resident Ann Bassel said. “So I’m in favor of whatever paths that would take (cargo planes) away from our residential farming areas.”

Even more worrisome are the helicopters and small aircraft that fly “very low” over her farm.

“I appreciate anything that can be done,” Bassel said during the Maui County Council’s Infrastructure and Transportation Committee meeting on Monday. “The noise and the lower flying does impact not only us living here, but the animals too. It’s just a loud roar.”

Frustrated community members have reached out to the council, state airports representatives and the Federal Aviation Administration for help.

John Varel of Waihee, who read his wife’s testimony on Monday, said there is “relentless noise” from helicopter tours that frequent the valley.

What was once a calm and peaceful location is now like a “war zone” from commercial operators flying overhead from about 7 a.m. to about 6 p.m., wrote Varel’s wife, who has logged as many as 20 helicopters in a given hour.

“They no longer stay in the valley — they fly over our farm, our house — we just can’t get away from the noise,” she wrote. “These tours do not serve our local community, they intrude upon it.”

Complaints have also come from neighborhoods in South Maui, Paia, West Maui and East Molokai.

Faith Chase, who lives beyond Ulupalakua, said that low-flying aircraft and helicopters scare herds of cows, deer, dogs and other animals into homesteads.

“From what I understand from some contributors is that they save gas if they go lower and then they don’t go along the coast and then go up the mountain where there is nobody living, so I can understand that, but who are they saving by not thinking about the safety of the homesteaders?” Chase said.

Molokai resident Malia Nolan moved to the island from Oahu to escape the flight noise. About three years ago, commercial flights from Honolulu were rerouted to fly over land instead of open ocean, she said.

“My family home that my mother grew up in, that I grew up in, now has over 100 flights to and from the Mainland and to and from the other islands a day directly overhead, so we couldn’t sleep and it was extremely detrimental to our health, our communities’ health,” Nolan said.

However, the issues surrounding noise pollution from helicopter tours are reaching East Molokai now too, she said, estimating that there are about 70 per day that fly overhead. She also noted how there are additional reroutes of aircraft from Kahului Airport that fly near south-facing shores by residential communities.

“I can no longer sleep with my windows open and I have to sleep with earplugs,” she said. “It really has an impact on our health and our well-being to have our sleep interrupted, our peace interrupted.”

Maui District Airports Manager Marvin Moniz said from his office at Kahului Airport that officials have been working with the Maalaea Village Association regarding flight paths for the past three years.

“We’ve been having concerns out in Kapalua and West Maui as well, Kaanapali hillside, and I think we’ve addressed some of that by just having conversations with the affected carrier that was flying out there,” he said. “There were also some concerns in the Haiku area that Council Member Mike Molina had brought up to our attention — those were some fixes where we were able to reach out to the carriers and asked them if they could make some adjustments, so having said that, that was easy for us as far as the state’s portion.”

While the FAA handles air traffic, the state Department of Transportation handles what’s on the ground.

Moniz said that even though they communicate and have open relations with the FAA, “sometimes there’s challenges with adjusting flight paths as well as aircraft from flying over certain areas at certain times.”

Still, the FAA does not have rules governing noise levels from aircraft operation. Any complaints are handled by the state DOT’s Airports Division in Honolulu by calling the hotline at (888) 697-7813. Once reported, officials will forward comments and complaints to the responsible agency, according to the FAA.

“Again, we want the public to know that we feel these calls and we try our best to work with the FAA to find some resolutions on some of these issues,” Moniz said.

The FAA calculates “annoyance due to noise” by measuring how people react to noise when it interferes with “speech, sleep, the desire for a tranquil environment, and the ability to use the telephone, radio or television satisfactorily,” according to the agency’s website.

An aircraft’s weight, flight path, speed, model and other characteristics affect noise.

Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who chairs the Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, said that she was told by the FAA via email that there is a FAA Hawaii Task Force that oversees noise complaints relating to aerial tours and works with state and local government partners, appropriate agencies and community groups.

The task force scheduled a virtual meeting for Tuesday with council members, state and federal leaders.

Sugimura said that the committee also connected with the office of U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele to mull ways to address the FAA issues.

Capt. Bill Hawkins, who used to work for the FAA, said that county officials are probably experiencing some pushback from the federal agency due to the unwillingness to change.

“Having been an FAA person at one time, I understand the bureaucracy and the resistance to change and the reason that we resist change is not because we want to be obstinate or anything but because things have been working so well the way they are,” said Hawkins, aviation committee chairman for the Maalaea Village Association and 30-year pilot, including for American Airlines. “If we change a flight and something happens and something goes wrong, then it’s on us, so it’s very difficult to get change through the FAA.”

Cognitive degeneration, hearing loss, increased stress or a larger carbon footprint are consequences of low-flying aircraft or aircraft that take longer routes to land, he said.

“The problem is not only the safety of those people that are in the air and those crews in the aircraft, but also for the safety of those people on the ground,” he added. “The safety of the people on the ground is just as important as the safety of those in the air.”

Hawkins said that there are “very easy” solutions for the Maalaea area, like changing the incoming Mainland flight approach to turn by the old sugar mill over agricultural land, rather than making a wide turn over Maalaea Bay, before landing at Kahului Airport, which would save 15 to 20 minutes in fuel time.

He plans to send his ideas to the council and said he would be open to research further solutions for other areas in Maui County.

“I think what we have to have is solutions that don’t just push one flight path from an area to another and then we’re going to play round robin with those complaints,” said Council Member Kelly King, who holds the South Maui residency seat.

Sugimura said that the FAA requires a 30-day advanced notice for a spokesperson to appear at meetings, so the discussion on aircraft noise and flight paths over Maui County will be on the council agenda in December, at the earliest.

The council plans to develop a resolution so members can “send our concerns and comments forward to the FAA Task Force and after, doing some research to contact whoever we need to communicate with,” she said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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