Jackson Hole air tours clear one legal hurdle

 - May 6, 2008, 9:17 AM

Gary Kaufman sits in his office at the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Airport and thinks of ways to sell all this scenery. Just a few miles away from this vest-pocket-sized airport (elevation 6,455 ft) the massive granite buttresses of the Grand Tetons rise another mile and more into the sky.

Some of America’s loveliest and most vertical real estate, the Tetons rise from the billiard-table flat floor of Jackson Hole as suddenly as the wall at the end of a handball court. These are the youngest mountains in North America, still rising from the valley floor.

Kaufman is looking for a way for his fledgling air-tour business, part of his Vortex Aviation Services, to grow as well. Not far away on the ramp at Jackson Hole Airport his two MD Helicopter MD500s wait for some air tourists.

“We’ve been under fire here from just about the very first day we spun a rotor,” Kaufman told AIN. “Maybe with this latest ruling we’ll get left alone and can log flights and generate revenue.”

“This latest ruling” refers to a recent finding by the First District Circuit Court in the District of Columbia dismissing a suit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society to bar helicopter air tours over Grand Teton National Park.

“It wasn’t the first suit we’ve had to fight off, and it probably won’t be the last,” Kaufman mused. “There are some people who don’t want to see a legal and environmentally responsible air-tour operator make it, especially in an area where there haven’t really been any before. What our opponents don’t seem to understand is that, unlike the air-tour operators flying over the Grand Canyon or in Hawaii, we don’t fly through national park airspace, except for the same small corridor used by everybody flying the ILS here at Jackson Hole. That’s because the airport and the ILS both are on national park property.

“However, as soon as we exit the airport, we turn east and get off park land for a scenic tour that’s second to none,” he said. Vortex specializes in upscale air tours by reservation only at prices ranging from $90 to $399 per person, depending on the length of the tour. “We fly off park land to the east side of Jackson Hole and up alongside the western side of the Wind River Range, the tallest mountains in Wyoming. The views are spectacular, so there’s no real need to fly over park land, the way some of these groups are claiming.”

The difference between showing the sights in the Teton and the Grand Canyon is that the Tetons rise up and the Grand Canyon goes down, Kaufman explained. “That may seem obvious, but it means you don’t have to get as close to the Tetons as you do to the Canyon to appreciate their beauty. You can see the Tetons clearly for dozens of miles on a clear day. You’ve got to fly over a canyon to appreciate it.”

In discarding the suit, Judge Judith Rogers, writing for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, ruled that the court decided in favor of the air-tour operator, maintaining that the plaintiff’s charges lacked “concreteness” and would “require the court to conduct a purely hypothetical inquiry.”

Vortex claims its operations, not nearly all of which are air tours, comply with the 2000 National Parks Air Tour Management Act, and said it accesses the airport via a special-use permit allowing its helicopters to transit this small portion of park property. (The airport has an 11 p.m. summer curfew and a 10 p.m winter curfew.) As far as overflights of park land, all of them–sightseers or not–are limited to no lower than 3,000 ft agl and no closer than one mile to geographic features that extend above those altitude limits (such as the imposing peak of the Grand Teton, highest summit of the range, which tops out at 13,770 ft).

Making the most of what Kaufman describes as a “pretty good” tourist season thus far, the owner of Vortex Aviation Services hopes the worst of his troubles with the foes of air tourism are over, at least for the season. There’s still the matter of a bill introduced to the U.S. Senate by Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) to prevent air-tour activities over the Grand Tetons. The bill is given little chance for passage, however, and is currently tied up in committee. “The problem with the bill is that would take it away the air-tour regulatory powers granted to the FAA in the 2000 National Parks Air Tour Management Act, and the FAA is not about to let go of that.”