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Fri, Jan. 24

Air-tour industry fights feds

Three Tusayan-based air-tour companies and the United States Air Tour Association were among those which filed a lawsuit early this week to prevent restrictions on scenic air tours over the Grand Canyon.

Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, AirStar Helicopters and Grand Canyon Airlines are among seven air-tour companies represented in the lawsuit. USATA president Steve Bassett said the federal government is destroying the air-tour business.

“This is unconscionable act of aggression by the Clinton Administration against visitors to the Grand Canyon,” Bassett said. “At the direct order of President Clinton, the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration have abused their regulatory powers for the sole purpose of irreparably harming and destroying the small business air-tour operators that provide spectacular air tours to nearly 20 percent of the park’s visitors in the only manner many of them can see the Grand Canyon.”

Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal center out of Denver, was expected to file suit in Washington, D.C., early this week against Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior; the Federal Aviation Administration; FAA administrator Jane Garvey; and Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Robert Arnberger.

The National Park Service had no comment on the lawsuit Friday, but Arnberger has contended all along that there is no intent to run small air-tour companies out of business. In a July 1999 interview, Arnberger said “... we believe that the aircraft tour industry can continue to operate here and provide that level of tour service right here at the Grand Canyon. But nobody’s trying to put them out of business and in fact, the National Park Service is on the record year after year, month after month, day after day as denying that.”

The USATA’s Bassett said the new flight regulations deny access to more than 800,000 visitors annually, including the elderly and physically challenged.

“We cannot sit by and permit these agencies to ignore the will of Congress, to kill an important and vibrant part of the economy of the rural west and to close the Grand Canyon to visits by elderly and physically-infirmed visitors,” Bass-ett said.

William Perry Pendley, Mountain States chief executive, said the regulations are unconstitutional because they exclude Native Americans and violate two acts of Congress by not using reliable scientific evidence and imposing unfair burdens on small-business owners.

New rules imposed on air tours by the Federal Aviation Adminis-tration stem from 1987 legislation which ordered the government to restore natural quiet to the Grand Canyon. The rules calls for quiet in more than half the park for more than three-fourths of the day.

Under the regulations, which are scheduled to go into effect on Thursday, the number of commercial air-tour flights will be capped at 90,000, which is the number flown in the year from May 1997 through April 1998. Each operator will be allocated a limit based on the overall cap.

The USATA points to hearings conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on National Parks and Public Lands which included testimony that the NPS had not conducted a valid, peer-reviewed scientific study and had relied on flawed and non-existent statistics.

“The FAA is responsible for ensuring air safety and the NPS is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s parks remain accessible to all Americans,” Bassett said. “Ironically, these new rules have nothing to do with air safety and have everything to do with closing the Grand Canyon to hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.”

Besides Papillon, AirStar and Grand Canyon Airlines, other air-tour companies joining the lawsuit are Air Vegas Airlines, Scenic Airlines, Las Vegas Helicopters and Maverick Helicopters.

“We look forward enthusiastically to having our day in court,” Bassett said.

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