ROTOR Magazine Article Winter Issue 1998-99

Reaching for A New And Higher Level of Understanding and Ultimately, Compatibility:
Public Relations Includes FAA and Local Airports

by Christine L. Eberhard

In the myriad of issues facing the helicopter industry today, many technical concerns are readily discernable. Airspace, procedures, flight standards, safety — the list goes on. On another front, an equally difficult issue continues to wear away at your ability to conduct business and have this industry grow and prosper — community resistance to the growth of helicopters. Unfortunately, community concerns are often not taken into consideration soon enough. This may occur because issues are often difficult to recognize and even less tangible in solving. These issues are not technical, but psychological, and require a different mind set, different methods for solution, and different players. In addition to the obvious reasons of flight altitude, routes, and the unique sound of helicopters, a primary reason for frustration is the airport neighbors’ sense of invasion of privacy and lack of control over their own backyards.

Handling Grievances

Invasion of privacy as an issue is well known by those of us who have sat through countless public meetings. This grievance was also verified by the American Helicopter Society (AHS) / Helicopter Association International (HAI) Image Enhancement Survey in terms of repetitive flights and loss of control by individual homeowners. Early turns, run-ups, touch and goes, curfew violations — the list of grievances goes on. Difficulty in getting an adequate response to complaints and inquiries adds to the frustration and anger of the affected residents. Longtime airport activists are tired of bureaucratic answers — enter a new age of community activism and a growing concern. Citizen anger and frustration are only partly due to the actual helicopter noise or potential safety incidents. Many concerned citizens are fed up with the bureaucratic run-around and lack of adequate response from officials. Unfortunately today, the helicopter industry often receives a great deal of this pent-up anger and frustration. When residents are unable to refute an inadequate explanation given by the airport or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a particularly disturbing operation, their level of frustration will grow to where they just “aren’t going to take it anymore.”

FAA and Airport Management Involvement

As the helicopter industry promotes helicopters and heliports, it is important that we involve airport management and the FAA, encouraging them to employ new solutions. They can be essential links in our public relations efforts. It is important for our helicopter industry to appreciate an airport manager’s perspective. As an airport manager related, “I get the brunt of all community helicopter noise concerns, whether they are landing at my airport or not.” It is not that the airport or the FAA are necessarily the bad guys. Today’s environment requires new approaches and new solutions that include a renewed spirit of cooperation and sensitivity to all sides.

The Pendulum is Swinging

Public officials are listening more and more to individual citizens and homeowner groups. Particularly, airport management is feeling citizen groups’ impacts. As overall airport concerns increase, it often seems that helicopters are a convenient scapegoat. Some airport managers would be just as happy if helicopters went away. Says one, “I spend more time on helicopter concerns and complaints than general aviation and jet operations combined. Unfortunately, they have become a real thorn in my side.” Finger pointing within the aviation industry itself is also an all too prevalent problem. Other aviation interests are glad to take a breather and have community “heat” directed elsewhere. In the midst of these kinds of airport-community issues that affect helicopter operations, both airport management and the local FAA can quickly become a friend or foe. And as mentioned above, surprisingly, the solutions utilized in the past may not be the most effective methods toward reaching resolution. To truly resolve concerns and “quiet” neighbors requires innovative thinking, a dedication of time, and the willingness on all sides to explore alternatives.

How can an operator resolve all of this?

Proven public relations techniques can help educate community members regarding helicopter operations. These include speaker bureaus, helicopter awareness days, and operator involvement in local Chamber of Commerce activities. Education of residents as to why and how helicopters fly where they do, and about existing safety concerns, is a long-term, but valuable public relations tool. It is advantageous for the helicopter industry to take a lead role and, if necessary, encourage both airport and FAA staff to become more responsive. Possible actions to take toward resolving community-airport concerns, by working directly with FAA and airport staff, include:

  1. Communicate with airport management to eliminate the old finger-pointing syndrome. Work with your airport manager to monitor complaints and community concerns. Develop and conduct a regional helicopter workshop for airport managers to discuss many of these issues. As a helicopter operator, let your airport manager know that you are willing to work with community members. Facilitate meetings between community and other pilots.
  2. Increase cooperation between airport management, FAA, and helicopter operators. Educate FAA controllers to helicopter capabilities by attending team briefings and weekly meetings. Invite the tower control chief, controllers, and airport manager to pilot and airport association meetings. Act as facilitator to increase communication between the tower and airport staff in working with helicopters. Encourage a change in everyone’s thinking to enhance proactive attitudes and a desire to solve problems that require creative, innovative thinking and communication. Request greater involvement by FAA tower personnel in working with airport staff and helicopter operators to increase communication and cooperation. It is well recognized that FAA control towers are understaffed and overworked; but increased cooperation has proven an effective means of reducing community concerns. In the long run, the time and cooperation devoted to working with pilots has also reduced FAA time spent on community concerns.
  3. Establish an effective “Community Response Line” to provide feedback. Most airports have complaint lines, but how they are utilized and managed is the key to effective results vs. frustration for both residents and operators. Residents need to provide specific information that will assist in understanding the incident time, location, type of aircraft, color/paint scheme, what it was doing. Photos are even better. Ensure that the monthly report of complaints/incidents gets out to pilots and operators. Too often, the report is circulated to “interested parties,” which usually means public officials and the same people that are complaining. It makes them feel good, but does little to resolve the problem. Operators should manage the report — find trends and perpetrators, and take action. Operators should monitor the reports to identify early warning signals of increasing concerns.
  4. In working with local communities, recognize that any effort is a long-term endeavor. Do your homework: know your audience. A foundation of education is the key. It is important to get everyone talking the same language. Listen more than you talk, especially early on. Accept the fact that it takes continual education and explaining the same issues over and over to an ever-changing community. Ensure that efforts by helicopter pilots and operators to “fly neighborly” get publicized.
  5. Attempt to better identify helicopters by mission, especially public service. One of the primary citizen questions is: “Who is that and why are they flying over my house?” Easily identified paint jobs and large N numbers help the community recognize different helicopters and missions. Public service and military helicopter operations in urban areas are significant noise generators, often due to older technology, repetitive missions, and lower altitudes flown. Community response produces a “Catch – 22” that is frustrating. Public service frequently generates the largest number of complaints, yet when the community finds out that it was public service, it says, “oh, that’s okay,” often leaving the brunt of problems with commercial and corporate operators.
  6. Self-police. While self-policing is the most difficult method, and one traditionally not favored by pilots, many operators are realizing the damage caused by one violator and the impact it is having on their operation. It is important to be able to effectively and efficiently identify perpetual abusers of “fly neighborly” techniques.
  7. Educate transient pilots to local noise sensitive areas. Work with transient pilots and tower personnel to increase communication and understanding of local flight procedures. As transient pilots get tuned in to local “fly neighborly” techniques, they will probably be more comfortable in asking the tower for specific information. As controllers gain insight into airport tenant/community concerns, they will be able to recognize transients and more readily assist them in avoiding noise sensitive areas.
  8. Encourage periodic evaluation of established routes and altitudes. This requires cooperation, insight, and sensitivity from all parties. Work with FAA for effective utilization of “Letters of Agreement.”


These are but a few of the techniques and opportunities to enhance communication and cooperation between airport tenants, airport management, the FAA, and community members. Used in conjunction with more traditional public relations efforts that provide excellent opportunities for positive public interface, these methods will assist in developing greater trust and credibility between helicopter operators and local citizenry. In today’s environment of community activists, who call for “shutting down the airport” or restrictive curfews, it is important for this industry to find ways to work more effectively to resolve mutual concerns. As the days of avoiding public scrutiny draw to a close, it is up to pilots and operators to encourage and educate FAA and airport managers to cooperative alternatives. It is this industry’s livelihood at stake, not the FAA’s or the airport’s. Airport management and the FAA hold valuable opportunities for this industry in helping to educate and enhance positive relations with communities. But the key for initiating changes in attitudes and methods lies with helicopter pilots, operators, and manufacturers. Our industry, in a spirit of open communication and desire to resolve mutual concerns can lead the way to a new and higher level of understanding and ultimately, compatibility.

Christine L. Eberhard is president of CommuniQuest and serves as an advisor the the HAI board of directors and chairman of the HAI public relations advisory council.

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