On March 14 the Senate passed the $52.9 billion federal highway bill (S.1803), which contains significant amendments regarding helicopter tour operations over national parks. Of particular concern is a successful amendment to the bill offered by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that would give the director of the National Park Service (NPS) broad authority to regulate helicopter and fixed-wing tour flights over land under its administration as well as tribal lands, a move that the air-tour business nationwide regards as debilitating.
Specifically, Alexander’s amendment would give the NPS director the authority to establish air-tour management plans (ATMPs) and to issue, revoke or ban air-tour permits. Alexander’s local concern appears to be about helicopter tours over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in his home state, but the move is seen as having much broader implications for flights from Hawaii, the Grand Canyon and other major domestic tourist destinations. It comes at a time when the air-tour industry has already invested substantially in new quiet-technology helicopters.
“We don’t see the necessity for the Alexander amendment. We think it is counter-productive and we are certainly going to work with the members of Congress on that,” said Helicopter Association International (HAI) president Matt Zuccaro. HAI points to the fact that Congress previously enacted legislation providing for the establishment of ATMPs in 2000 (National Parks Air Tour Management Act) that has worked well for all stakeholders and provides adequate due process provisions.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered another successful amendment to the bill that would curtail the NPS’s authority to encroach on the FAA’s airspace authority and would provide unspecified financial incentives to air-tour operators who adopt “quiet technology.” Zuccaro said HAI sees the McCain amendment in a positive light and is working to get “clarity” on its provisions.
“McCain has good intent with trying to bring closure to the ATMPs, and we are interested in finalizing that and really getting a clear consensus with the members of Congress,” Zuccaro said. “Our desire is to work out a fair and equitable program for all the stakeholders. We are not in favor of across-the-board restrictions on air tours and we want to make sure everyone addresses the initiatives that the air-tour operators have made over these many years in terms of route, altitude and time-of-day changes on their own. We just want to have recognition and agreement of what has been achieved” in terms of much quieter air-tour operations.
Not all helicopter-related amendments to the highway bill succeeded. After his attempt to insert mandatory helicopter routing provisions over Long Island were removed from the recently enacted FAA re-authorization act, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) combined that along with language from legislation previously offered by California congressmen and senators to regulate civil helicopter traffic over the Los Angeles basin more stringently. The Senate voted down the amendment, which Zuccaro branded “bad legislation” and “outrageous.”