An amendment to a United States federal transportation bill that would give control of airspace over national parks and tribal lands to the National Park Service (NPS) is being debated in Congress and the president of Helicopter Association International (HAI) is warning that, if passed, the consequences could be dire for the air tour industry.
This thing has literally the potential to stop all air tours in the national park system, HAI president Matt Zuccaro told Vertical. Its another step in what we see is an unbelievably disturbing tendency thats developing where the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] seems to be acquiescing control of the airspace to third parties. And that concerns us deeply.
The amendment to Senate Bill 1813, proposed by Lamar Alexander, the Republican senior U.S. senator from Tennessee, would give sole discretion to the director of the NPS to prohibit commercial air tour operations over a national park. Currently, Zuccaro noted, joint programs for air tour management plans in the parks are worked on with input from the FAA, NPS and a national advisory board that includes both members of the helicopter industry and environmentalists.
According to Zuccaro, the proposed amendment takes away this coordination effort and the resulting checks and balances with the FAA reduced to a consulting role. The FAA is mandated by Congress to be the sole governance body and regulatory body in matters of airspace and aircraft operations, said Zuccaro. And, thats something that we dont think they can give away or subjugate to a third party.
John Becker, chief operating officer of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, told Vertical that he has been trying to raise awareness among other operators as to the existence and implications of the Alexander amendment for the air tour industry.
Its a job killer, he said. But number one, it would impact aviation safety. It would facilitate the NPSs ability to inappropriately influence the selection of air tour routes when the park service has no experience in regulation of air carriage or airspace management. Thats the FAAs responsibility.
Papillon alone employs about 550 people, but Zuccaro said it wouldnt just be those directly involved in the air tour industry that would be affected. It has a ripple effect: the hotels, the people that the guests go to, to take part in this and go on these on tours. Youre talking tens of millions of dollars, easily, and thousands and thousands of jobs.
Zuccaro said the practical application of a restriction on airspace within a half-mile outside the boundaries of national parks (as suggested in the amendment) could also create conflicts for operations that have nothing to do with air tours such as flights in New York City in the area around the Statue of Liberty. The other thing that concerns us is that if you apply that to the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island, which is a small parcel of land, the NPS is now controlling airspace and aviation activities outside the park itself.
Zuccaro noted that the proposed restrictions on air tour operators come despite their substantial investment in quiet technology, such as helicopters with reduced noise profiles. By some estimates, Papillon and the other operators that fly over the Grand Canyon have spent $185 million US on quiet technology over recent years.
The operators have been unbelievably accommodating and co-operative, said Zuccaro. Theyve changed routes and changed altitudes voluntarily, in order to mitigate any effect they have. We add times to routes, we add expense, but its the right thing to do for community outreach and fly neighborly programs. . . . [The NPS] then decide that they want to change the threshold, and make it more restrictive. So, if were going to keep moving the target every time that we achieve it, we dont have a program, we dont have a goal, we have almost some kind of a show game being played here.
HAI said the amendment is receiving strong support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and Democrats in the House, as conferees from the two chambers attempt to iron out the differences between Senate and House versions of the bill. HAI is working with the General Aviation Caucus in the House to prevent the amendments final passage, with caucus members meeting with House and Senate leaders last week to encourage rejection of the legislation due to its threat to aviation safety.
Papillon COO Becker said it was important that anyone involved in the industry registers their opposition to the Alexander amendment: Anybody thats doing air tours over national parks should be worried about it and should be working diligently to raise awareness to get that amendment removed.
HAI said those wishing to register their opposition to the amendment should contact their Congressman and Senators and urge them to co-sign the GA Caucus Congressional letter to House and Senate transportation leaders. The contact for co-signing the GA Caucus letter on Capitol Hill is Mike Matousek with Congressman Sam Graves of Missouri. He can be reached at 202-225-7041.