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Park Service wants to restrict flights over Grand Canyon

NPS wants to cap at 65,000 a year to reduce noise

WASHINGTON—The National Park Service wants to cut the annual number of tourist flights over the Grand Canyon by 30 percent, one of several proposals aimed at reducing aircraft noise heard on the ground.

Air tour companies said current noise-reduction efforts are working and that increasing restrictions would mean a big loss of tourism dollars.

“In this economy, it would be very, very crazy and very damaging to mess with it,” said Nigel Turner, the president of Heli USA Airways.

But the park service said capping flights at 65,000 a year within Grand Canyon National Park won’t destroy the air tour industry. The agency is taking public comment on the plan until Monday.

“We recognize that providing a quality air-tours experience for our visitors is important,” said Palma Wilson, deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.

The entire plan aims to reduce the level of aircraft noise heard in the park by visitors and wildlife on the ground over 10 years. Among the key features of the proposal:

- Alternate some air tours between existing corridors on a seasonal basis;

- Require all commercial flights in the special-flight-rules area to use Federal Aviation Administration-approved quiet technology within 10 years;

  • Cap daily tour flights at 364;
  • Slightly modify two of four existing general aviation corridors;
  • Ban flights below 18,000 feet in most flight-free zones;
  • Extend curfew hours around sunrise and sunset, when air tours are prohibited.

Air-tour industry officials say the park service keeps “moving the goalposts.”

“We feel like we’ve played by the rules since 1987,” said Andy Jacobs, a spokesman for several tour companies. “We’ve hit every metric asked of us to date.”

The National Parks Overflight Act of 1987 mandated that the park service achieve the “substantial restoration of natural quiet” in Grand Canyon National Park. A 1994 report defined that as no audible aircraft noise in at least half the park for at least 75 percent of the day.

Along the way, several rules have been issued by the FAA to reduce aircraft noise. Current restrictions have restored natural quiet to 53 percent of Grand Canyon National Park.

But in 2008, the park service specified that half the park was a minimum goal, indicating it was looking for a more substantial solution.

“While some people would say we’ve already reached (the goal), if we continue with business as usual, that 53 percent would probably go down,” said Wilson.

Under its proposal, the park service projects natural quiet would be restored to 67 percent of the park over 10 years.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says the plan goes too far for not enough benefit and would force general-aviation pilots to fly around some areas now open to them.

“Asking pilots to simply do more when there’s no gain achieved doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Heidi Williams, AOPA’s senior director of airspace and modernization.

The plan backed by the park service is not as drastic as it could have been: One option would restore natural quiet to 84 percent of Grand Canyon National Park.

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That alternative wouldn’t decrease the annual cap for air tour flights, but it would expand the flight-free zones, modify general-aviation corridors and be more aggressive at instituting quiet-technology rules.

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National Park Service

This view of the Grand Canyon's South Rim is taken from one of the routes the National Park Service has proposed in its plan to restrict flights and noise pollution over the park.

Timeline of aircraft noise reduction at Grand Canyon

  • August 1987: National Parks Overflight Act requires a report from the park service on recommendations to reduce aircraft noise.
  • June 1988: The Federal Aviation Administration establishes the special-flight-rules area within Grand Canyon National Park.
  • September 1994: The Department of the Interior and the park service submit their report.
  • April 2000: The FAA sets several rules for air tours, including an annual cap of 90,000 flights. The National Parks Air Tour Management Act requires the FAA to define and encourage the use of quiet aircraft technology.
  • March 2005: The FAA issues a rule setting quiet technology decibel levels. The FAA and the park service establish the Grand Canyon Working Group to collaborate on noise-reduction actions.
  • November 2005: The park service submits summer noise data that will be used to determine noise-reduction strategies.
  • April 2008: The park service issues Federal Register notice that restoring natural quiet to half of Grand Canyon National Park is a minimum goal.
  • February 2011: Park Service publishes draft environmental impact statement detailing its preferred and three alternate plans for reducing aircraft noise in Grand Canyon National Park.