Commercial helicopter services may be inevitable but must be tightly regulated
Caught between a storm of public criticism and an impending snowstorm, the two companies running a controversial helicopter shuttle service between Salt Lake and Park City did the only sensible thing they could — suspend operations. But not before county officials got a taste of how popular the service could be and how unprepared they are to regulate it.
The hot-button issue marred an otherwise sunny start to the Sundance Film Festival and exacerbated the community’s already volatile relationship with Uber, an Internet-based transportation service that has upended traditional business models for taxi companies around the world. In a surprise move just a week before the festival residents learned that Uber had been given exclusive rights to use a prime parking lot on Main Street.
That was quickly followed by an over-eager public relations blitz that set Snyderville Basin residents’ nerves on edge. The news that Uber would be unveiling a helicopter shuttle service between Salt Lake and Park City went viral on both coasts and the next thing Old Ranch Road residents knew, their pastoral neighborhood was under siege.
Two days into the service, however, Uber was hit by an avalanche of negative comments. Local county commissioners and law enforcement personnel were bombarded with complaints, too.
Ultimately it was the county sheriff who put his foot down. With plenty of other public safety concerns related to keeping order everywhere from the National Forest to the mini-Hollywood scene in Park City, he wasn’t about to let a potential helicopter accident wreck the weekend.
An Uber spokeswoman tried to put a positive spin on the decision to stand down, but the damage was done. UberCHOPPER’s debut in Park City was botched.
But they will be back, if not Uber then another shuttle service. Even though the two-day trial was unpopular on the Park City side of the mountains it was evident that a market exists for the service. And as long as there is a willing landowner to provide a landing zone, there is a potential for another conflict.
In fact, if there is a culpable party in this uncomfortable dustup, it is the landowner. They should have, at least, checked with the county before leasing the property to a commercial outfit and, at best, should have notified neighbors of their intentions.
Consider it a timely warning. The county needs to direct its legal team to devise an airtight plan for tightly regulating future helicopter-oriented businesses. According to the judge who balked at supporting the county’s request for a temporary restraining order last weekend, current local ordinances do not specifically regulate commercial helicopter services.
Uber’s foray into providing the airborne shuttle service proved that people are willing to pay almost anything to get to Park City. That’s a good thing. But putting potential passengers at risk, or interfering with medical and other public safety air traffic or diminishing the quality of life for nearby residents by not regulating the service, is unacceptable.
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Judy Horwitz writes in a guest editorial that Summit County voters must continue to support a vital source of funding for the area’s arts and culture institutions.