Helicopter tours losing appeal in wake of crash


During a normal eight-hour shift on the Strip, Michael Denicoli usually sells enough helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon and Sin City to fill two or three choppers. But since a crash killed five people Wednesday and made international headlines, tourists who walk by his booth are skipping the splurge of a few hundred bucks for a bird's eye view of the Hoover Dam and other sites.

"I have advertisements of helicopters, and they look at it like as if it says: 'The plague,' " Denicoli said as he worked an Adventures International stand on the Strip across from the CityCenter casino complex at the start of a busy tourist weekend. "It went from being slow to being beyond slow."

Denicoli said he removed countertop brochures for Sundance Helicopters -- the company that operated the helicopter that crashed Wednesday evening in a remote canyon some 12 miles east of Las Vegas -- not wanting potential customers to link the operator to the stand. But few, if any, among hundreds of tourists who pass the stand during any given hour are stopping.

Sundance and other helicopter operators have tried to move forward from the crash with normal flight schedules as passengers with tickets have called to ask about safety. Meanwhile, those who've taken rides before have been thinking about whether they'd do so again as they post pictures of their excursions on Facebook and Twitter.

"It was beautiful, but it was pretty frightening at some points," said Liz Beltran, 23, of Norwalk, Conn., who posed for a picture at the bottom of the Grand Canyon after taking a $500 helicopter tour nearly a year ago.

"I really loved it and I told all my friends to do it, but definitely now after this, I don't think I'm going to be recommending it too much anymore," she said.

Federal investigators were still piecing together what happened in the crash that killed 31-year-old pilot Landon Nield, a Kansas couple celebrating their wedding anniversary and another couple from New Delhi. The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to issue a preliminary report on the crash in two weeks, and the Federal Aviation Administration hasn't kept Sundance from flying again.

Sundance resumed normal operations on Friday after voluntarily suspending them on Thursday, and planned to give refunds if customers asked for them, spokeswoman Sabrina LoPiccolo said in an email.

LoPiccolo said it was too early to tell whether Sundance has had cancellations or slower bookings since the accident. She said Sundance employees, if asked about the crash, say that it was a Sundance helicopter but share few details because of the investigation.

Aerial sightseeing is big business in Las Vegas, with four operators at McCarran International Airport averaging more than 1,500 passengers per day combined so far this year at ticket prices often starting above $200 each. The flights let tourists see some of the region's most iconic sites from vantage points they couldn't get from the ground.

Many tourists, especially international visitors, aren't necessarily in Las Vegas because they want to glue themselves to a blackjack table or a slot machine. Couples often board the flights for romantic excursions, as do tourists looking to fulfill a bucket list of America's top destinations.

Nigel Turner, owner of Heli USA Airways, which runs tours out of Mc­Carran, said he's had no cancellations but has spent lots of time since the crash reassuring customers that his flights are safe.

"I was on the phone at 3 o'clock this morning talking to my big accounts in Europe, just reassuring them about safety," Turner said, noting that 60 percent of his business comes from international travelers. "They're our partners, and they've got to trust us, and they do."

Turner said companies offering heli­copter tours -- a $120 million-a-year business at McCarran alone -- have to understand that safety is the key to their reputation, and individual mishaps are almost certain to be amplified more than fatal car crashes or other deadly accidents.

There are hundreds of similar companies nationwide, offering aerial tours of places like Mount Rushmore, New York and the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's a very big industry and a very professional industry," said Turner, who said he was in the process of investing $28 million in seven new helicopters to add to his fleet.

"Fifteen, 20 years ago we did have cowboys then," Turner said. "That's when the crashes happened. Now, it's a very regulated industry by the owners. These people who own these companies are not playing chump change here."

Mike Brennan, a 22-year-old New Yorker who took a Grand Canyon heli­copter tour with his brother three years ago, said the crash wouldn't make him hesitate to fly in helicopters again, because he thinks people who fly understand there are inherent risks before taking off.

"It's sort of similar to going to an amusement park," Brennan said. "There's always like a danger where things happen on those rides occasionally. But it's like you hear about it but you don't ever think it'll happen to you."

Beltran said she thinks operators and those selling tours need to do a better job explaining to customers that riding in a helicopter isn't like flying aboard a typical airline.

"You definitely have to have a strong stomach, and the thing is they don't really tell you that," she said. "They tell you it's going to be a really cool experience -- it might be a little scary -- but they don't really tell you exactly what it feels like to ride in a helicopter with these winds and the type of environment that you're going to experience up in the air."

Denicoli said he thinks business will bounce back in a few weeks as people forget about the crash, new sets of tourists arrive in Las Vegas and thousands of helicopter flights run in and out of Sin City without incident. If the crash doesn't unearth evidence of more widespread problems in the industry, he thinks many observers will treat it like a bad car accident.

"I see more car accidents in front of my business," he said.

 

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