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An experimental characterization of a helium surface-wave discharge (SWD) at atmospheric pressure using spectroscopic techniques is presented. Values of plasma parameters (densities and temperatures) were obtained from these techniques and the degree of thermodynamic equilibrium was shown to be that of an ionizing plasma. The experimental values of the plasma parameters were compared to those obtained from a theoretical model developed for the same He discharge type and to those found in the literature for other noble gases (neon and argon) SWDs also generated at atmospheric pressure. These comparisons enable to infer the main cause of departure from local thermodynamic equilibrium to processes involving He molecular ions, namely, associative ionization and dissociative recombination.