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Sen. McCain Has Proposal For Air Tours Over Grand Canyon National Park, But is It A Good One?


Is Sen. John McCain's proposal for air tours over the Grand Canyon a good one? NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

During the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Senator John McCain of Arizona was applauded by many as a friend of the national parks.

However, some groups are now wondering why the senator is supporting legislation that would increase air tours over Grand Canyon National Park, an experience that offers many incredible views of the park and yet one that others criticize for the noisy intrusion on the park setting.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, Senators McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, supported by Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign of Nevada, have introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill that would allow for more air tours and “aircraft noise” at the Grand Canyon than currently allowed.

Passage of the amendment, which could come up for a vote as early as today, “would undercut the years of work through a public process to develop regulations for air tours that would better ensure quiet in the park while still providing opportunities for people to view the park by air,” NPCA officials said. “And, as the first park air tour plan, it would set a bad precedent for other national parks that are also affected by air tour noise.”

According to the parks advocacy group, the amendment:

* Prohibits any reduction in the allocation of air tours over the park – even if they disrupt visitors who are enjoying the park from the rim, river, or hiking trails, and requires a rule-making to assess possible increases in the number of daily air tours.

* States that “substantial restoration of natural quiet” has occurred when 50 percent of the park is “quiet” for at least 75 percent of the time. That prevents the NPS from improving current conditions, and means half the park will virtually never be free of air tour noise that disrupts the experience of park visitors.

* Establishes a definition of natural quiet that ignores noise from other aviation sources (such as flights that are not intended for sight-seeing).

The amendment also would allow 364 overflight tours per day.

While the amendment calls for overflight tour planes to be converted to “quiet aircraft technology,” it also provides 15 years from enactment of the amendment for those conversions to be made. Companies that make the conversions before then will be eligible for reducing overflight fees and more flights, the amendment adds.

Compared to those provisions, the NPCA points out that the National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 calls for the “substantial restoration of natural quiet” at Grand Canyon National Park.

The NPS and FAA have completed an environmental impact study that is very close to release by the Department of Interior, according to NPCA. The study reflects years of hard work and input from local stakeholders and the American public and includes a range of alternatives.


This legislation is terrible. I'm a Grand Canyon river guides and we've been working toward restoration of natural quiet for years. This effort has been in conjunction with other like-minded groups, but also tried to include the air tour industry. Every other user group is
strictly regulated in the Park - the air industry seems to think they're "above it all". This regulation is a typical Republican business-first ploy to circumvent all the effort put in to bring aircraft noise in line with other Park criteria, and makes us all pretty angry. Traveler readers should contact their representatives and tell them they expect equal treatment of all Park users - this is far from equal, and nothing like the process used to regulate the river industry.

It is long past time that these senators still grasping to stagnate antiquated ethics retire.

This is horrible! Part of the reason for hiking the canyon is to get away from all this noise and commerce. It seems they forget that dirtbags spend money too. If I have to choose between returning to the canyon with lots of flyovers or seeing some places less publicized in southern Utah, I know where I will go and spend my time and money.

Please, what are they thinking!! 364 flights per day!!! I am an AZ resident and hike the Canyon. I appreciate the peace and quiet - no motorized except for emergency needs. And if there has to be a tourist flight to accommodate those who cannot hike into the Canyon - strictly supervised schedule of flights, very few per day.

It sounds to me like the commenters here are all for an elitist NP that keeps everyone out but them. Just because you enjoy hiking doesn't mean that you need to restrict everyone else to your likes. When they are talking about 364 flights per day they are talking about 364 passengers not 364 aircraft. Those flights are already restricted to certain areas of the Canyon so you can conceivably hike somewhere where you will be away from the noise if you aren't afraid to hike in the quiet areas of the Grand Canyon. Besides, even without the tour flights you will be in the occasional flight path of a jet that will make more noise than the tour planes and I don't see those flights going away or even changing flight paths anytime soon.

Anonymous, you might be correct about the "364" passengers versus flights, but the amendment specifically states, "Not more than 364 flights may be operated on any day in the Grand Canyon National Park Special Flight Rules Area."

If that language passes, I would think a good lawyer could argue it means "flights," not "passengers."

You are correct about the airspace restrictions, and the commercial jets.

The river guide here again... the term "elitist" in the above rebuttal is interesting. I'd hardly call myself or the river guide organization elitist - we're looking for equal application of the rules. It rankles me tremendously that the air tour industry has (strongly) resisted all efforts to level the playing field for years - now their tactic is to have special legislation crafted for them to circumvent the effort. It is true (and I make no apology for this) that I and many others believe that we've trashed the planet enough already - the national Parks in particular should be a place of refuge. That aside however, the other concessionaires have been willing to play by the rules and moderate as many negative influences as possible in their areas of use. Apparently the air industry is not. Call your representative!

I'm a pilot and I have a great idea!

How about restricting fly-overs to the section of canyon running north from Desert View to Marble Canyon? That would keep traffic away from most of the canyon -- out where not too many ears would be listening.

364 flights per day is only 36.4 flights per hour if you figure 10 hours of daylight. That's just a few more per hour than the number of airliners that use Salt Lake International.

Of course, with that number of flights crammed into a smaller airspace and the danger that pilots' eyes might be distracted by spectacular scenery rather than watching for other traffic, we'll need some air traffic control. Easy solution. Just turn the top floor of the Desert View watchtower into a control tower and go for it!


And if restricting flights to smaller airspace is still too crowded, let's try night-time sightseeing. The canyon is still spectacular by starlight and even better under a full moon!

This will be a win-win solution. More money in the till at the flightseeing operations and more money they can contribute to their favorite Republican.

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