TUSAYAN — The unprecedented move by the Federal Aviation Administration last week to ground all aircraft in response to the Sept. 11 hijackings not only stranded travelers across the country, but also impacted air-tour companies.
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters' fleet sits silent Thursday morning after air tours were grounded.
The move by the FAA cannot be questioned because of the obvious seriousness of the situation. As a result, however, Grand Canyon-based air-tour companies lost thousands of dollars during the shutdown.
"Business is secondary to what’s happening in the United States," said Mike Bashlor, general manager and director of operations for Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters. "Our hearts go out to those in New York and Washington. It was a sad, sad day in America."
There were tourists stranded at the airport after flights were grounded on Sept. 11.
For example, Scenic Airlines station manager Dave Leavitt said they had a total of 140 people stranded who had to be transported back to Las Vegas via bus.
"We had two passengers who were in the World Trade Center two days before," Leavitt said. "They were pretty rattled."
Air-tour operators waited for the green light to take tourists over the Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park Airport closed down on Sept. 11 and had opened again two days later. On Thursday morning, for example, "Instrument Flight Rules" traffic was being allow. Such flights can be easily tracked.
Life-saving operations were being allowed on a case-by-case basis. On the afternoon of Sept. 11, the National Park Service did a medical evacuation from Phantom Ranch.
By the next day, all general aviation traffic along with helicopters received clearance.
"In my 30 years of aviation airport management, this is probably the most frustrating situation I’ve had," said Russ Pankey, acting airport manager. "The industry had never shut down completely."
A misunderstanding Thursday morning did lead to an incident involving a Vision Air pilot. Law enforcement had to take action to disallow the plane from taking off. Pankey said the pilot thought he was legal to go.
The airport held several meetings with tenants in the hours and days following the terrorist attack.
"We involved all the tenants early on and gave them all the information ... I don’t think there were any hard feelings," Pankey said.
The type of extra security measures to be implemented at Grand Canyon airport were unclear. After jet aircraft left in the 1990s, the airport was no longer classified as a Part 107 security airport.
"We've already made some changes that I can't talk about," Pankey said.
Pankey said the airport could go back to a Part 107 operation in the future.
U.S. Air Tour Association president Steve Bassett said air-tour companies at Grand Canyon have complied "fully and enthusiastically with new government-imposed security measures at airports."