TOPS: An inclusive approach to wider industry change

July 22, 2021

For air tour and sightseeing operators looking to enhance their safety operations and public perception, the not-for-profit TOPS has a solution.

In the early ’90s, four helicopter tour operators met to discuss ways to improve safety for the air tours 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 Association (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.

In 1995, discussions within Helicopter Association International led to the formation of the Helicopter Tour Operator Committee (HTOC), who drafted the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) guidelines. The HTOC presented the draft to the FAA that year, and today, the safety program remains the primary standard for TOPS members.

Members of TOPS follow a set of requirements that exceeds the regulations laid out by the FAA for Part 135 and Part 91 operators, holding themselves to an even higher standard.

As TOPS members, air tour operators undergo independent audits to ensure they remain in good standing. After two decades, TOPS has proved itself as the choice for tour and sightseeing operators wanting to take the ‘extra step’ in safety, with a combined safety record that performs better than the air tour industry as a whole.

Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) member, Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters

TOPS members exceed FAA regulations by:

• Carrying aircraft floatation equipment on all extended flights over water to accomplish a safe emergency water landing

• Equipping each passenger and pilot with an approved personal floatation device for all flights over water

• Equipping their aircraft with visibility enhancing equipment such as flashing landing lights, high-visibility rotor blades, and strobe lights

• Carrying equipment to meet federal regulations governing night VFR instrumentation for recovery from adverse weather conditions

• Implementing a Safety Management System (SMS)

• Completing third-party compliance audits

 TOPS continually works to improve air tour safety and is therefore open to change. Its operators and Board members identify areas for further enhancing safety as well as the benefits of new technology. As a result, the Program of Safety standards are reviewed on an annual basis and changes made accordingly. 

For some types of operators, these standards are tough to meet, so in early 2020, TOPS launched The Rising Tide program, which works with smaller air tour and sightseeing operators who do not meet all of the TOPS standards but can demonstrate an equivalent safety level. For Part 91 sightseeing operators, this could take a couple of years to transition into full compliance, but TOPS mentors these members every step of the way.

It’s an inclusive approach to creating wider industry change - one that the public can depend on.

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