FAA to allow more air tours at Grand Canyon

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Air tour operators that use
aircraft with quiet technology will be able to fly more people over the
Grand Canyon.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it plans to
release 1,721 flight allocations this year that had been abandoned to
those commercial tour operators, as long as their active fleet doesn’t
increase noise in the park overall.
An extensive transportation
bill passed in 2012 requires the FAA and the National Park Service to
come up with incentives for quiet air technology at the canyon. Earlier
this year, the Park Service reduced the fees for air tour operators that
use the technology from $25 per flight to $20.
The FAA determines
whether aircraft is considered quiet by using a formula that takes into
account noise certification levels and the number of seats.
The
FAA’s decision to release more flights was published this week in the
Federal Register. It would bring the total number of air tours allowed
per year to nearly 94,000, though not all of those are used. FAA data
show that almost 52,000 commercial flights took passengers on
sightseeing tours over the Grand Canyon in 2012.
Converting an
aircraft to meet the definition of quiet does not necessarily mean the
aircraft will be quieter. Operators could, for example, add more seats
to existing aircraft or switch out engines to satisfy the standard.
Nearly
50 of the flight allocations being freed up by the FAA are for the
Dragon and Zuni Point corridors, which take passengers over the widest
and deepest part of the canyon, and to the eastern edge. Those are
expected to be used up quickly. While allocations from those corridors
can be transferred to other areas of the canyon, the remaining 1,672
flights cannot be conducted within those corridors.
Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said he expects the effect to visitors will be
minimal.
"An
extra 49, when you’re talking about one every two minutes, I don’t
think anybody will actually physically notice them," he said. "You know
there is more noise because there are 49 (more) flights, but no one is
going to notice it on the ground, and that’s why we’re comfortable with
it."
Jim McCarthy of the Sierra Club disagrees. He said he’d
rather see the abandoned allocations retired rather than increasing the
number of flights that affect backcountry hikers seeking solitude and
quiet in the canyon’s wilderness. He said safety also could become an
issue with more aircraft in the skies.
"It’s incrementally in the wrong direction," he said.
The
Park Service wanted to make 67 percent of the canyon quiet for
three-fourths of the day or longer, but the provision in the 2012
transportation bill forced a change to make half of the park free from
commercial air tour noise for at least 75 percent of the day and
provided incentives for quiet air technology.
Many of the tours originate from Las Vegas.
Arizona Sen. John McCain said Wednesday that he is pleased that more air tours will be available to park
visitors.
"Air
tours, and the unique sightseeing experience they provide, are an
important part of the northern Arizona economy," he wrote in a
statement.
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