Flying Over The Grand Canyon – Where The Heck Are We?

Does airplane noise bother you? If not, you may be alone. Do fatal airplane crashes bother you? If not, you may be alone. It’s the rest of us – river runners like me and other “ground users” of Grand Canyon – that are bothered by them. So, too, are the air tour operators and quite a few other stakeholders at Grand Canyon.

In 1987 the situation was so bad at Grand Canyon that some in the air tour industry went to Washington, DC, to talk their Congressmen into changing the laws so as to limit the air traffic. One of my friends had a very bad day of it, learning by telephone in his Congressman’s office that one of his very own planes had crashed, killing 9 people. Yes, the situation was bad. There were below-the-rim tours and willy-nilly routes and almost unlimited traffic. Owing to the crash and to numerous complaints about noise from Canyon rim visitors, things began to change. The National Park Service, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the air tour operators changed things around – many times – to arrive at the soundscape and safety conditions we have today. Meanwhile, Congress passed Public Law 100-91 – August 18, 1987.

The law said, in part, that the National Park Service (NPS) “…shall provide for substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park and protection of public health and safety from adverse effects associated with aircraft overflight.” A subsequent law, PL 106-181-APR. 5, 2000, required the establishment of a 20-member Grand Canyon Working Group (GCWG).

The group included co-chairs from the FAA and Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA), American Indian tribes, air tour operators, private pilots, major airlines, private and commercial river runners, hikers, and environmental stewardship groups, both public and private. The GCWG met quarterly from late 2004 to April 2006. After that time the GRCA developed some pre-draft alternatives for the GCWG to review prior to development of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The DEIS will be published soon and be released for public comment.

The challenge to make sure that “50 percent or more of the park … [has] natural quiet (no aircraft audible) for 75 to 100 percent of the day” was tedious and difficult for the GCWG and the NPS to meet. Every stakeholder group had different primary objectives and the law was written with conflicting or ambiguous language. User groups often complained of being unheard and unrewarded. The word “complex” doesn’t begin to describe the suite of problems.

In the end, it is likely that the GRCA preferred alternative in their DEIS will look very much like today’s management. The overflights have been controlled significantly since the late 1980s and the soundscape and safety at Grand Canyon are much improved over the conditions prior to that. This is not to say we shouldn’t keep trying to make the Canyon quieter and safer. Our best chance for that is to attend the public comment meetings and to make substantive comments on the DEIS.


An Example of Complexity – High Flying Jets

The fact is, air tours, when considered alone, affect less than half the Park for less than 25% of the day – in other words “natural quiet” has been substantially restored. On the other hand, airliners, when considered alone, impact 100% of the Park more than 25% of the day – “natural quiet” has not been restored. The Park vis-à-vis air tour noise meets the restoration criterion and if we had only air tours to consider then the natural quiet of the Park would be substantially restored – according to one part of the law.

But another part of the law doesn’t allow us to neglect airliners. Even if we eliminated air tours altogether the Park still wouldn’t be quiet. Computer simulations show that moving or eliminating quite a few of the airline flights would not make much difference. Besides, moving flight tracks on paper is possible whereas moving them in real life in this country’s saturated airspace is another matter altogether. There are 1214 daytime and 499 nighttime commercial airliner flights over Grand Canyon. And where would you put the flights? Over Zion or Bryce or Hovenweep or Sedona?

For now it looks like we’ll just give the high flying jets a pass. That’s what Senator John McCain intended when he co-sponsored the bill but the courts have never supported his view. To change the law and truly exempt the high flier noise or to change the flights themselves seems to be one of the choices this country will be facing soon.

A River Runners Policy for Overflights?

River runners in general peacefully tolerate overflights in Grand Canyon. Due to noise and the loss of wilderness-like character, we prefer there to be no overflights whatsoever but recognize that rescue operations, tourism, and transportation all have positive aspects that make them acceptable within limits. We recognize that Public Law 100-91 – August 18, 1987, exempts helicopter noise made by flights at Whitmore Wash related to lifting commercial river passengers and boatmen out of the Canyon at the end of their river trip.

My personal opinion is that, at the very least, there should be no expansion of scenic air tours or any intrusive air traffic at all beyond the 2005 calendar year level of use. Efforts to reduce the invasion of aircraft noise into the Grand Canyon should continue. These efforts should include embracing quiet technology aircraft, more seats per flight and therefore fewer flights, moving flight paths away from sensitive areas, having seasonal respite by closing some flight corridors at some times of the year, and establishing curfews that allow longer respite after sunrise and before sunset.

The next move for the public is to wait for the GRCA to issue its DEIS. After that we should attend public comment sessions and then make substantive comments on the DEIS. Our challenge will be to learn, among many things, how the GRCA intends to move air tour routes and corridors up, down, or sideways and to understand any suggested seasonal variations and potential new routes or fewer routes based on aircraft type and type of flight.

Find more information at http://www.nps.gov/grca/overflights/documents/chronology.htm
http://www.atmp.faa.gov/npoag.htm and at http://overflights.faa.gov/

Dave Yeamans
Member, Grand Canyon Working Group
Board of Directors, Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association

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