Environmental groups were pleased with a federal appeals court’s ruling Friday ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with new rules to reduce aircraft noise over Grand Canyon National Park. While those groups want to see "natural quiet" at the Canyon, an air-tour industry already staggered financially in the post-Sept. 11 era could be hit even harder.
A Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters tour flies over the Grand Canyon. Friday’s court ruling appears it will impact the air-tour industry. (Photo courtesy of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters)
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FAA was not taking proper action to reduce aircraft noise. The FAA must now implement stricter regulations to reach the goal of "natural quiet," defined by the National Park Service as 50 percent of the park being quiet 75 percent of the time.
The Grand Canyon Trust and five other environmental groups sued the FAA over how it measured noise in the park. The court found that requirements outlined in the 1987 National Park Overflights Act must be met daily, not using an annual average.
The FAA has been measuring noise over a whole year, balancing out noisier days in the summer with quieter days in the winter. The court said that method could allow too much noise during the busy summer season.
"For the typical visitor, who visits the Grand Canyon for just a few days during the peak summer season, the fact that the park is quiet ‘on average’ is cold comfort," the three-judge panel wrote in its ruling.
The court also told the FAA to consider other planes in their noise measurements. Commercial aircraft flying over the park must either be included or there needs to be proof that they are not audible on the ground.
"Theoretically the use of an annual average could permit the statutory standard to be met despite an incessantly noisy summer, assuming that the other seasons were relatively quiet," the court wrote.
A park study showed that on a noisy summer day, 19 percent of the Grand Canyon is quiet.
The FAA imposed various restrictions a few years ago, including an annual cap on flights of 90,000. The court dismissed arguments by air-tour operators who say the FAA rules go too far with setting caps on flights.
Geoff Barnard of the Grand Canyon Trust said he was pleased with the ruling, reinforcing that visitors have a right to see the Canyon in solitude.
"Natural quiet — the undisturbed sounds of wind in pine trees, streams flowing over smooth rocks and birds warbling — is one of the resources that the National Park Service must protect," Steve Bosak of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a press release.
Steve Bassett, U.S. Air Tour Association president, told the Associated Press that "this opinion is especially disheartening in light of the continuing significant impact Sept. 11 is having on the air-tour industry."
Bassett said air-tour operators have seen a drop of 30 percent to 50 percent in passengers.
Although one logical conclusion may be to limit flights even further, air-tour companies who fly out of Tusayan have been spending money to pursue quiet technology in their helicopters and fixed-wing planes.
Government attorneys are now reviewing the ruling before determining the next step. There is no deadline for FAA compliance. It’s unknown at this time if an appeal is being contemplated.