Grand Canyon overflight rules will have little impact on general aviation, thanks to AOPA

March 3, 2008

Grand Canyon overflight rules will have little impact on general aviation, thanks to AOPA

New Grand Canyon overflight rules will have little impact on general aviation, thanks to advocacy efforts by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The FAA published the Grand Canyon final rules April 4. Most of the rules govern commercial air tour operators. However, changes to the special flight rules area (SFRA) will affect some general aviation access over the national park. The new SFRA becomes effective December 1, 2000.

"The original SFRA proposal would have caused even more operational problems for GA," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, "but the FAA responded to AOPA's objections and modified the final rule to reduce restrictions on general aviation.

"The FAA also acknowledged that general aviation is not a significant part of the 'noise problem' at Grand Canyon National Park." (All of the new rules are part of the FAA's strategy to satisfy Public Law 100-91 and assist the National Park Service in "substantially restoring the natural quiet" of the canyon.)

Among the changes that AOPA pushed for, and the FAA granted, were:

  • Reopening the Fossil Canyon and Tuckup corridors for GA overflight
  • Charting waypoints to help pilots navigate through the overflight corridors
  • Moving the Desert Free Flight Zone and SFRA boundaries to provide more room for GA traffic to transit between the SFRA and the Sunny Military Operations Area (MOA)

The original changes to the SFRA were first set to go into effect in December 1996. AOPA led GA community opposition to those changes, citing unnecessary restrictions on GA aircraft and concern over National Park Service preemption of FAA authority.

Following a 1997 AOPA petition, the FAA put the new rules on hold until 2000. But during those four years, the FAA made more changes to the rule.

AOPA continued its opposition to the original rule and subsequent modifications, testifying at public hearings and urging the FAA to respond to the specific points in the association's petitions.

The FAA never answered until now.

But in the April 4 final rule, the agency said that it "apologizes for not responding to AOPA's petition earlier, but addresses and disposes of that petition in this final rule."

In fact, the FAA did address most of AOPA's concerns.

For example, AOPA had opposed the relocation of the SFRA eastern boundary and the expansion of the Desert View Free Flight Zone. That would have created a narrow, mile-wide corridor between the SFRA and the Sunny MOA. AOPA argued that could impact safety by restricting pilots' maneuvering room.

"The FAA agrees [with AOPA] that the proposed action could be perceived as forcing general aviation traffic closer to the Sunny MOA and compromise safety, especially in inclement weather," the FAA said. The agency reduced the size of the Desert View FFZ and cut the southeast corner of the SFRA.

AOPA asked that the Fossil Canyon Corridor be reopened to GA traffic. The FAA responded that it hadn't intended to close the corridor but conceded it had erred by not publishing the correct information. "The FAA corrects that error in this rulemaking by making the Fossil Canyon Corridor available only to transient and general aviation operations at a flight altitude of 10,500 feet msl and above."

AOPA also said Tuckup Corridor should be opened for GA traffic. The FAA said the corridor was open but again conceded that the map published for public comment didn't show it.

The association had also asked the FAA to drop the floors of the North Canyon and Marble Creek sectors. The agency refused this request, saying that because of "heavy commercial air tour operations" flying below 7,500 feet msl in those sectors, general aviation traffic had to stay above 8,000 feet msl.

At AOPA's request, the FAA clarified another portion of the new rule. While the SFRA has a ceiling of 17,999 feet msl, that part of the rule only applies to commercial tour flights. GA can still cross the canyon above 14,500 feet msl or at lower altitudes through the designated corridors.

Finally, the FAA acknowledged that general aviation is not a factor in disturbing the "natural quiet" of the Grand Canyon.

AOPA had argued in previous petitions that there were no data demonstrating that transient private aircraft caused a significant noise impact on the park. The FAA conceded that transient aircraft account for less than three percent of all Grand Canyon overflights. General aviation overflights will be excluded from future "noise modeling," which will be used to determine if more rule changes are needed to control noise.

"General aviation is not a significant noise problem at any national park. AOPA has always cooperated with the National Park Service to preserve the park experience for ground visitors," said Boyer. "Nearly all GA pilots voluntarily fly 2,000 feet above sensitive areas. Most of the time ground visitors can't even hear a GA aircraft above the noise of wind, water, and other visitors.

"General aviation overflights don't bring litter to the parks, demand construction of roads in parklands, or cause traffic jams and pollution."

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., represents more than 355,000 pilots who own or fly three quarters of the nation's 204,700 general aviation aircraft. General aviation aircraft comprise 96 percent of the total U.S. civilian air fleet.

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April 5, 2000