Park Service proposes cap on Grand Canyon flights

 - March 28, 2011, 10:15 AM

The National Park Service (NPS) is proposing new rules to cap the number of air-tour flights over the Grand Canyon, further restrict flight corridors and altitudes adjacent to it, and mandate the use of “quiet-technology” helicopters flying tours there. While helicopter tour operators have voluntarily added more modern and quieter helicopters, such as the Eurocopter EC130B4 “EcoStar,” to their fleets in recent years, they appear united in their opposition to a hard cap on the number of flights they can conduct.

The new rules would set a daily hard cap of 364 flights and an annual cap of 65,000 flights, about 12 percent more than the current level, for operators who in many cases are experiencing double-digit growth demand for these flights.  Areas of the Grand Canyon controlled by Native American tribes would continue to be exempt from the restrictions.

In February the NPS released a “Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), Special Flight Rules in the Vicinity of Grand Canyon National Park.” The DEIS was drafted to restore “natural quiet” to the park, which the NPS had defined as no aircraft audible noise in 50 percent or more of the park 75 to 100 percent of the day. Operators have already achieved a standard of 54 percent, but the draft DEIS wants to raise that to 67 percent. The NPS noted that the park’s “natural soundscape” is “essential and vital to its remote and wild character.” The public comment period for the new rules ends June 6, and operators are moving quickly to express their concerns to the NPS.

Bryan Kroten, a spokesman for Maverick Helicopters, which operates an all-EcoStar fleet of more than 30 helicopters on Grand Canyon flights, said his company understands the need for quiet-technology helicopters, but opposes the flight cap. Kroten said the cap would hurt the Grand Canyon air tour business “immediately.”

“Most of our guests are international. When Americans go to China they want to see the Great Wall. Foreign visitors to the U.S. want to see the Grand Canyon, and limiting the number of aircraft is going to reduce the number of people who get to visit it,” Kroten said. “Any sort of restriction on tourism in Arizona and Nevada is not a good thing.” He said Maverick flies more than 100 flights a day there, either by flying primarily Europeans to the Canyon from Las Vegas in the EcoStars or shuttling them to forward-based helicopters in the company’s fleet of three Beechcraft 1900D turboprops. Kroten said, despite the economy, Maverick is enjoying double-digit growth thanks to foreign demand. “Europeans drive the helicopter market in Las Vegas,” he said, estimating that 60 to 70 percent of all air tours are carrying international visitors.

Other provisions of the DEIS include the implementation of new short and long loop air-tour routes, moving routes away from various “sensitive” areas, increased minimum altitude near the North Rim, increasing the ceiling of the flight-free zone to 17,999 feet msl, a reduction of routes in the Marble Canyon, and a ban on most non-air-tour air operations inside the Park. It would also restrict short tours from flying over the Dragon and Zuni Point corridors near the southeast end of the Canyon.

Operators would be required to convert fully to quiet-technology helicopters within 10 years.

Maverick operates the only entirely EcoStar fleet flying the Canyon, but other air tour operators, most notably Papillon and Sundance, are aggressively adding EcoStars to their fleets. However, an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the Grand Canyon air-tour helicopter fleet is not currently quiet-technology compliant and Steve Bassett, president of the U.S. Air Tour Association, said that a number of air-tour companies would find it financially burdensome to make the full switch.

Between now and the expiration of the comment period, the NPS will hold several public meetings throughout Arizona, Nevada and Utah to offer explanations and solicit public input. o