AOPA is challenging the 5,000-foot "triggering altitude" contained in the proposed National Parks Air Tour Plan. The association is concerned about establishing a precedent that might be used to restrict general aviation flights in the future.
"As a key member of the National Parks Overflights Working Group, AOPA supports most of the plan," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs, "but AOPA strongly opposes the proposed 5,000-foot overflight altitude.
"The FAA's selection of this altitude was arbitrary and unilateral. It could lead to an unsafe mix of flight operations. And the selection of this triggering altitude might be used to justify future restrictions on transient general aviation operations over national parks."
The plan regulates commercial air tour operations over national parks and does not currently have any direct impact on most general aviation traffic. That's because AOPA, as a member of the working group, successfully argued that transient general aviation aircraft do not cause a significant amount of noise or congestion over national parks and, therefore, should not be subjected to any additional regulation. (The plan also includes a limited exemption for the occasional sightseeing tours conducted by small Part 91 operators.)
But a key part of the debate was establishing a "triggering altitude" that would define what was a "commercial air tour operation" under the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. The FAA set that altitude at 5,000 feet agl, ignoring input from the working group.
AOPA had originally argued for a 2,000-foot triggering altitude, noting that current guidelines call for GA aircraft to overfly environmentally sensitive areas at 2,000 feet or more. After considerable discussion in the working group (which included representatives from the aviation industry, environmental groups, and Indian tribes), a 3,000-foot triggering altitude was proposed.
"This altitude would capture commercial air tour operations while allowing for separation of air tour and transient overflight traffic," said Cebula. "In contrast, a 5,000-foot triggering altitude would result in an intermixing of operations." In its formal comments to the notice of proposed rulemaking on National Parks Air Tour Management, AOPA is urging the FAA and the National Park Service to establish 3,000 feet as the triggering altitude for proposed air tour operations over national parks.
The 370,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. More than 57 percent of the nation's pilots are AOPA members.