WASHINGTON – New rules planned for air tours of the Grand Canyon would not affect commercial aircraft flying over the park, under a measure approved by the Senate.
A deal brokered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., clears the way for the National Park Service to develop rules that set new limits on the number of sightseeing flights over the canyon while reducing noise pollution. The measure was included in a broad transportation bill approved Wednesday by the Senate.
McCain and Reid said they were concerned that passenger jets flying high above the park on the way to Las Vegas and other airports could be negatively affected by the Park Service plan, which is intended to increase the number of air tours over the Grand Canyon while at the same time making the environment quieter.
A draft plan released last year would allow 65,000 flights a year -- an increase of about 17,000 over 2010 figures -- and limit daily air tours to 364, an increase of 50 over current levels.
Nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and tour agencies do a brisk business in offering helicopter and airplane flights over the park.
But hikers and tourists on the ground have complained that the aircraft noise interferes with the feeling of solitude and overall natural appreciation of the canyon.
The Park Service's goal is to restore natural quiet to 67 percent of the Grand Canyon for three-fourths of the day or longer, up from 53 percent, a target the tour industry strongly resists.
McCain said Wednesday he still opposes the overall plan, which he said could "decimate" air tours through unfair noise restrictions. McCain said the plan could eliminate hundreds of tourism jobs and cause tour operators to lose as much as $18 million in the first year alone.
"Air tours provide a unique sightseeing experience for people who might otherwise not be able to visit the Grand Canyon, particularly the elderly and the disabled," said McCain, who sponsored a 1987 law that set rules for air tours at the Grand Canyon.
McCain said the Park Service plan relies on "faulty assumptions" about noise levels at the canyon and does not account for about $200 million that air tour operators already have invested in so-called quiet technology.
While the amendment does not solve all problems with the Park Service plan, it does address significant concerns raised by the Federal Aviation Administration regarding the plan's impact on commercial jets serving Las Vegas and other airports, McCain said. It also provides incentives for air tour operators to continue development of quiet technology, he said.
A spokesman for the Interior Department, which oversees the park service, said the Senate amendment did not pose a problem.
Environmental groups had opposed an earlier version of the amendment that they said could have undermined the Park Service's rule-making process. The groups dropped their opposition after the amendment was narrowed to the commercial jet provision.
"While it's not perfect, it is vastly improved," said Bryan Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group that has worked to reduce noise pollution at the Grand Canyon.
The transportation bill now goes to the House.