Lawsuit to Ground Excessive National Park Overflights

WASHINGTON, DC, Oct. 4, 2017 – The Federal Aviation Administration has fallen down on its job of protecting national parks, visitors, and nearby residents from incessant, noisy air tours, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  As a result, nearly 65,000 air tours, most concentrated over a few parks, took off last year without limit on the number, routes, or timing of flights.

Air tours offer visitors panoramic views of some of America’s most iconic national parks. But the constant whump-whump of low-flying helicopters and loud drone of small planes annoys hikers, rafters and other on-ground visitors. In addition, the intense noise disturbs wildlife and, studies show, changes their behavior, sometimes during critical periods, such as mating.

Nor are negative impacts limited to park boundaries. Near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for example, hundreds of homes lie in the path of air fields from which as many as 80 flights a day and more than 15,000 last year were launched.  Residents say that helicopter noise is constant and year-round, causing many to lose sleep, suffer from stress, and a host of other complaints.

Back in 2000, Congress enacted the National Park Air Tour Management Act directing the FAA, in consultation with Park Service, to “establish an air tour management plan for any national park or tribal land whenever a person applies for authority to conduct a commercial air tour.” But the FAA, whose mission is to promote commercial aviation, has yet to establish a single air tour management plan during the ensuing 17 years and shows no signs of doing any in the future.

“The Park Service is supposed to protect parks for present and future generations but its jurisdiction in essence ends at the treetops,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that several parks, such as Glacier, have tried to end helicopter and fixed-wing air tours but are powerless without action by the FAA. “Our lawsuit is designed to curb damaging overflights and require the FAA to finally manage what is now basically a flying free-for-all.”

Instead of developing management plans, the FAA has simply issued “interim” authorizations year after year that essentially grandfather in all tour operators. All told, it has issued an estimated 300,000 interim approvals without any environmental review or meaningful national park input.

The PEER suit covers seven of the most heavily trafficked national parks accounting for nearly one-half of all park air tour traffic.  They are: Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakalā in Hawaii, Glacier in Montana, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Bryce Canyon in Utah, Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona and Nevada, as well as Muir Woods National Monument in California.  It would force the FAA to develop an air tour management plan within the next two years, unless a voluntary plan is negotiated between a park and tour operators in the meantime.

“Unless the FAA acts, air tour operators have no incentive to negotiate voluntary restrictions to minimize impacts on parks,” Ruch added. “Our lawsuit is meant to jumpstart a planning process that should have begun a generation ago.”

Read the PEER suit

Look at Hawaii Volcanoes’ overflight nightmare

See air tour numbers in the suit’s seven parks 

View the 2016 National Park Commercial Air Tour report