May 22, 2012
By Dan Namowitz
Leaders of the House General Aviation Caucus in Congress are working to block a provision in the Highway Reauthorization bill that would give the National Park Service unprecedented regulatory authority over air tour operators overseen by the FAA.
AOPA is urging members to contact their members of Congress and urge them to sign a letter being circulated until June 1 by Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.), co-chairs of the GA Caucus, for delivery to House-Senate conferees on S. 1813, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act.
A section inserted by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in the highway program and safety bill would give the National Park Service broad authority to regulate operators who fly commercial air tours over the national parks. It would also expand their ability to regulate airspace above the parks.
The GA Caucus members said the FAA “is the agency responsible for regulating air tour operators, certificated air carriers, and ensuring our airspace is safe—not the National Park Service.” Section 100301 of the bill would give “unprecedented authority to the NPS to regulate air tour operators and the airspace over national parks and tribal lands. This is a step backward in aviation safety and should be rejected in any surface transportation conference agreement.”
The GA Caucus leaders have characterized the regulatory proposal as “nothing more than a biased judgment on how to experience our national parks.” Passage of the language threatened to eliminate the long-standing air tour industry along with the jobs it provides, as well as those in other tourism businesses, they have told colleagues.
Caucus members are citing legislative history in their campaign to set aside the National Park Service provision. They planned to remind the conferees that after an accident over the Grand Canyon in 1986, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the National Park Service had inappropriately influenced the selection of air tour routes, and Congress responded with legislation to protect the national parks and ensure a safe, viable air tour industry.
Although the language appears in the bill as a technical correction, it amounts to a full-scale, 26-page rewrite of existing law.
In letters to the conferees and GA Caucus members, AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton urged removal of the section authored by Alexander out of concern that the NPS will not be satisfied with regulatory authority over air tours.
“Our experience has shown that their ultimate desire is to prohibit air tour and general aviation overflights of national park units,” she wrote.
Howerton thanked the GA Caucus for its prompt response to this misguided provision.
“We hope our members will let their congressional representatives know how important it is to protect the air tour industry and avoid setting a troubling precedent for the regulation of the nation’s airspace,” she said.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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