WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House General Aviation Caucus has joined aviation’s alphabet groups in an attempt to derail an amendment in a bill that would give the National Park Service authority to regulate air tour flights over national parks.
Recently, 18 members of Congress signed a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate committee on Environment and Public Works, and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, urging them to drop the amendment when the bill goes to conference.
A section in the Highway Reauthorization Bill, introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), would give the Park Service authority to regulate tour flights over Park Service land. This would include limiting the number of tour companies, how many flights might be made, and at what times. Park Service officials also could establish the altitudes, time of day, and routes to be flown. Tour companies would be required to obtain permits and winning those permits would depend on the impact on the environment and intrusion over tribal lands.
In the letter from the caucus, the legislators said the section of the bill should be rejected in any surface transportation conference on agreement. Citing the FAA’s authority for regulating air tours, they added the proposal is a step backward in air tours.
General aviation groups are concerned that if the section is not eliminated from the bill it could open the door to many other types of control taken away from the FAA. Steve Brown, chief operating officer of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), said the proposed law “would set an adverse precedent.” Under current laws, he added, the FAA is given primary authority for safety in the national airspace, as well as designing routes and certifying aircraft, such as the ones discussed in the proposed legislation. Brown said the National Park Service “doesn’t have an embedded expertise in matters of airspace and aviation safety.”
Officials from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in letters to members of the GA Caucus, urged removal of the section in the bill out of concern that the proposal threatens to eliminate the air tour industry, along with the jobs it provides. Lorraine Howerton, VP of legislative affairs, said that group’s experience has shown the National Park Service’s ultimate desire is to prohibit air tour and general aviation flights over national parks.
Current regulations affecting air tours and national parks have been effect since 2000 when Congress passed the Air Tour Management Act. This followed a fatal accident over the Grand Canyon in 1986. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the FAA failed to exercise appropriate oversight over air tour operations and that the park service had inappropriately influenced the selections of air routes. That legislation regulated the air tour industry and let the FAA and NPS work together on flight issues of parks.
Proponents of the proposed section to the bill claim the changes are merely “technical changes” to the existing law, but it is a 26-page rewrite of the section. This broad change, opponents fear, could lead to other agencies and departments usurping some of the authority of the FAA, resulting in confusion and improper regulations.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.
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