Grand Canyon air-tour proponents received yet another blow August 16 when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against a package of challenges brought against FAA noise and operations caps. Moreover, the court ruled in favor of a Canyon-oriented environmental group, holding for the first time that FAA planners must also measure and account for noise generated by private airplanes in Canyon airspace, a decision marking the first time this issue has been added to the FAA mandate.
These latest decisions were the results of challenges to FAA rules brought by the U.S. Air Tour Association (USATA), a pro-air-tour industry group, and the Grand Canyon Trust (GCT), a coalition of six environmental groups. USATA has long maintained that current FAA rules capping the total number of permissible flight hours are an unfair restriction of trade, a position the association has yet to persuade a court to agree with.
Mandated by federal law in 1994 by the so-called “Overflights Act” to restore the “natural quiet” of Grand Canyon National Park, most of the legal maneuvering over park airspace ever since has dealt with development of a mutually acceptable definition of that term. In the ensuing eight years of often acrimonious adjudication, neither the USATA nor the FAA has ever agreed with the other side.
In its separate challenge, GCT argued that the FAA must consider private aircraft operating in park airspace below 14,500 ft, in addition to air tours, when calculating noise levels. The FAA has declined to do that in years past. However, this latest court decision demands it, ruling that “the FAA can certainly choose to achieve the substantial restoration of natural quiet by regulating air tours alone. But the FAA cannot dispute that whether or not non-tour aircraft are regulated, natural quiet does not exist when the sound they make is audible…Nor does the Overflights Act provide any basis for ignoring noise caused by such aircraft.
“The fact that the FAA has chosen not to regulate certain categories of aircraft does not justify ignoring the sound those aircraft make when deciding how extensively to regulate other categories. And in the absence of any reasonable justification for excluding non-tour aircraft from its noise model, we must conclude that this aspect of the FAA’s methodology is arbitrary and capricious and requires reconsideration by the agency.”