FAA seeks to prevent air tour authority swaps

 - September 13, 2006, 12:59 PM

The FAA has proposed an opinion that would prevent air tour operators from transferring national park air tour interim operating authority (IOA), effectively barring new-entrant tour operators and limiting the number of annual national park tour overflights. The public comment period ended July 28.

All air tour operators are currently conducting national park overflights under IOA in accordance with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. That act prevents the granting of permanent operating authority for a national park unit until an air tour management plan (ATMP) is adopted. Pending that, existing tour operators who had served the unit during the 12 months before April 5, 2000, have been granted a renewable IOA. No ATMPs have been created for any national park, primarily due to environmental legislation issues.

Alan Stephen, former Scenic Airlines president and a member of the National Parks Overflight Advisory Group, told AIN, “We need some mechanism for transferability or reallocation of surrendered interim authority quotas” until the ATMP process makes full operating authority available. “In the interim we have to accommodate the changes going on, whether we call it transfer or reassignment.”

The FAA bases its proposed opinion upon its interpretation of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, contending that Congress did not consider interim operating authority to conduct tours over national parks “a valuable right” that can be transferred between operators.

Although the opinion would not have the force of a rule or regulation, it would express the FAA’s intent to refuse approval of IOA transfer requests. This would effectively preclude any new-entrant applicant from gaining national-park air tour operating authority since it could not obtain an IOA. That authority is reserved for existing operators. The 2000 act precludes the FAA’s issuing an IOA to a new entrant unless the applicant can demonstrate that a lack of competition in the unit leaves its air tour market unserved or under-served.

In addition, by effectively preventing additional operators from entering the air tour market, the FAA would keep the annual number of air tour flights over a given unit from increasing. Each existing operator has a quota set in accordance with the act (based on the 12 months before the act’s signing or an average of the previous three years). Thus, the number of annual tour flights could decrease only if an operator decides to leave the market since his quota, being non-transferable, would go unused.

The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 specifically excludes the Grand Canyon and national parks in Alaska, but the FAA opinion would affect those parks as well.

Air tour companies are conducting Grand Canyon National Park tours under IOA while the FAA and aviation interests and the National Parks Service and environmental activists wrestle over such issues as defining the terms “natural quiet” and “substantial restoration” found in the Grand Canyon Overflights Act of 1987.