In conjunction with the passage of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, the FAA released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the establishment of commercial air tour management plans at national parks. The Act and subsequent regulations are targeted at commercial air tour operators. Thanks to AOPA's efforts on the National Park Overflights Working Group (NPOWG) the management plans will not impact general aviation.
Airspace access is one of the most important issues facing AOPA members. The controversy over noise generated by aircraft overflights of national parklands led to proposed rules that could have been unduly restrictive to general aviation, even though general aviation is not a significant source of noise over national parks. Without AOPA's vigilance, the rules could have threatened air safety and would have set a bad precedent for the FAA by ceding regulatory authority over aviation to other federal agencies.
In an attempt to address the controversy surrounding overflight regulations, the Secretaries of Transportation and Interior appointed a National Park Overflights Working Group (NPOWG) comprised of representatives of the aviation industry, air tour industry, environmental groups, and Native Americans. The NPOWG was charged with recommending a compromise park overflights rule. The group included AOPA's Senior Vice President for Government and Technical Affairs as the representative for general aviation.
The NPOWG successfully forged a compromise that formed a solid foundation for the FAA to develop an overflight rule, which addresses the needs of aviators, tour operators, and tourists who enjoy the national parks from the air and the ground. A proposal based on the work of the NPOWG was subsequently incorporated into the FAA's FY 2000 reauthorization legislation, AIR-21. On April 27, 2001, the FAA in collaboration with the National Park Service, released its NPRM on National Parks Air Tour Management [requires Adobe Reader].
The NPRM proposes to codify the National Parks Air Tour Management Act and it mirrors the NPOWG recommendations with one exception. It includes a proposal for a 5,000-foot-agl triggering altitude to complete the definition of a "commercial air tour operation." This proposed triggering altitude conflicts with the 3,000-foot triggering altitude reached in the NPOWG. In the NPOWG AOPA advocated for a 2,000-foot triggering altitude to complete the definition. Our advocacy efforts were done in consideration of current guidelines that call for GA aircraft to overfly environmentally sensitive areas at 2,000 feet or more. After additional discussion within the working group, the Association compromised with an altitude of 3,000 feet. This altitude is in concert with VFR cruising altitudes as established by the Code of Federal Aviation Regulations 91.159, VFR cruising altitude or flight level.
AOPA believes that the NPOWG proposal provides a balanced and reasonable approach to allow air tours access to national parks while preserving the quiet and beauty of national parks for all visitors. The proposal requires that the FAA and the NPS work cooperatively and with public input to write Air Tour Management Plans for each park where air tours operate. The proposal does not apply to transient general aviation flights and will not apply to Alaska or Grand Canyon National Park. AOPA has submitted comments to the Air Tour Management Plan NPRM and continues to advocate for a 3,000 ft. AGL triggering altitude. (See AOPA's National Parks Air Tour Management NPRM comments.)