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Safety is TOPS!

Posted 2 years 128 days ago ago by Admin

The air tour industry has been heavily scrutinized in recent years. Whether for safety concerns by the general public and legislators, noise complaints, or limiting access to National Parks, operators in this sector have been faced with challenging times.  Intensify the situation with the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and these companies barely continued to keep the lights on this year. Fortunately, air tour operators are resilient and resourceful with helping to address these types of issues. They provide a valued service to passengers who eagerly seek out this mode of sightseeing and who might not otherwise have access to the unique and beautiful locations throughout the world.

One bright spot in this murky period is a shared conviction among a certain group of air tour operators that believe in flying to a higher standard to help promote safety and enhance their customer’s experience. The members of the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) continue to persevere and identify methods for improving the air tour industry. This successful model focuses on collaboration among similar operators with other industry associations and with the communities in which they fly.

“TOPS has always had a focus on safety and a deep sense of obligation for helping the air tour industry fly to a higher standard.”

~ John Becker, TOPS board member and COO of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters

In the early ’90s, four helicopter tour operators met to discuss ways to improve safety for the air tour industry. It was a time when the industry was experiencing growing pains after sensationalized media coverage over preventable accidents painted the industry as one with little regard for the safety of its passengers. Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had its own set of requirements and safety guidelines for aviation operators, the tour operators felt their industry needed a tailored safety program to address public concerns and skewed perceptions. So, in 1996 TOPS was incorporated as an independent, non-profit organization, and the detailed Program of Safety was implemented. This program incorporated the expertise and experience of those who know the industry best. This was presented to and well received by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). For the first time, there was an organization, TOPS, that was dedicated solely to further enhancing the safety of all aspects of helicopter tours.

TOPS Mission: TOPS works as a collaborative team to develop air tour safety standards and recommended practices that are progressive, best-in-class and exceed regulatory standards.

The TOPS Program of Safety maintains the tradition of innovation in the area of continuous improvement for air tour safety. These standards are routinely revised to account for new safety technologies as well as better processes. The organization has a robust safety culture that includes sharing of lessons learned for safety improvement and by providing recommended practices that are best-in-class and exceed regulatory requirements. A core element to this standard now is the implementation and sustainment of a Safety Management System (SMS) which is still not a regulatory requirement for this aviation sector. Although not an easy effort, it was recognized by TOPS members as a necessary element to future safety success for operators as well as sustained trust by their passengers and the general public. A review of the SMS process is conducted as part of the annual audit that operators must complete to verify conformance to the Program of Safety. This serves as an effective tool to assure TOPS members maintain alignment with the organization’s mission.

“This is one of those experiences that are very hard to put into words.”  

“Amazing views from the top of the world…”  

“This was my first helicopter ride and I couldn't have been happier with the experience.”

~  Passengers on tour flights from Juneau, Alaska

Prior to the pandemic the air tour industry had been experiencing steady growth on a yearly basis as tourists were actively desiring this type of sightseeing experience. There is no doubt that viewing scenic areas and landmarks from the air is unique and potentially a once in a lifetime adventure. In addition, for some passengers this can be their only way to access these beautiful locations due to disabilities or physical limitations. The variety of services and types of excursions that are provided by air tour operators has many advantages for tourists and the communities in which they operate.  TOPS members help to enhance safety for their passengers with specialized equipment, additional training for pilots and maintenance technicians, as well as distinctive risk reducing processes. The various flights that are offered to customers take into account what the passenger is seeking as well as how best to minimize the impact to the surrounding community. As flight volume returns post-pandemic, this level of commitment by TOPS members will remain integral to fostering a safety culture focused on the customer.

“TOPS recognizes the need for community engagement. As operators, TOPS membership understands the industry and importance for enhancing safety and can bring those insights into meaningful dialogue with the community. TOPS is an important stakeholder in moving the industry forward on safety and improving compatibility in the communities in which our sector operates.”

~ HAI Vice President of Government Affairs Cade Clark

TOPS also understands the importance of partnering with other aviation associations, the community, and local governments. As stated previously, there have been concerns related to noise, safety, and the environmental impact from air tours. Members of TOPS participate in working groups with Helicopter Association International to help facilitate industry-wide solutions to these situations as well as build engagement through community-based organizations, such as the Hawaii Air Noise and Safety Task Force.  TOPS members recognize these stakeholders play a vital role with balancing access and preserving the beautiful areas that sightseeing flights take place. Through education, open dialogue, and genuine action TOPS members have been able to help resolve many issues raised by the general public. TOPS knows that this is a challenging endeavor and will continue to work in good faith to help manage concerns by their local communities and legislators.

“I would say this about TOPS: We are delighted to have the opportunity to work with TOPS moving forward. TOPS has established itself as a leader in the helicopter safety space, and we are excited to leverage the years of industry knowledge that the TOPS team brings to the table to improve our practices, procedures, and policies.”

~  Ryan Harbison, general manager & VP business operations, Breeze Helicopters

In 2020 TOPS members recognized that a large portion of the air tour industry was errantly being excluded from its membership due to the sole focus on Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 135 certificate operators. One of TOPS goals is to be more representative of the air tour industry. As a result, a new category of membership was established to help mentor small FAR Part 91 operators in hopes of raising the level of safety for the whole industry. The Transitional Member is an operator who has air tour/sightseeing operation(s) as an integral part of its business but does not meet all the standards of the Program of Safety. The process includes the completion of a gap analysis and the establishment of a timeline for full conformance with the TOPS standards within 24 months. This inclusion of a new class of tour operators is proving to be effective. Several operators such as Panhandle Helicopter in Panama City Beach, Florida, and Breeze Helicopters in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, who previously would not have considered being a part of TOPS are now participating and appreciating the benefits.  They now have access to resources and experience from other TOPS operators to help facilitate operational growth, improved training, professional development, and safety management. This involvement can also lead to a pathway for aspiring personnel to join larger air tour operators in the future. The Transitional Membership will continue to evolve as TOPS will learn from these operators and how to better support them.

"From the very first conversation I had with the members of TOPS, I could see how genuinely proud they were to explain what sets the 'Tour Operators Program of Safety' apart from other safety organizations. Immediately, I was inspired by their passion and commitment to going above and beyond the standard safety regulations in our industry.”

~ Chynna Rosett, general manager, Panhandle Helicopter

Currently, TOPS Regular Members include Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, Coastal Helicopters, NorthStar Helicopters, Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, and TEMSCO Helicopters.The Transitional Members include Breeze Helicopters and Panhandle Helicopters. There has also been interest from several other operators in recent months, including fixed-wing tour companies, so 2022 looks to be a promising year for membership growth and program expansion. TOPS also has an important group of Associate Members who support the mission and efforts of the organization.  They include OEMS, insurance companies, maintenance and part providers, technology developers, and safety management solutions.

TOPS will continue to strive towards flying to a higher standard to help promote robust risk management in the air tour industry. It is essential that the general public recognizes the important role the air tour industry serves, and how the safety of its passengers is paramount. There will be challenges facing the air tour industry in the future, but through deliberate collaboration and meaningful safety action we can achieve success.