tion of natural quiet” over the park. But, said McMullen, what exactly constituted “natural quiet” wasn’t defined until 1994 in a report to Congress – that in a 12-hour day, 50 percent of the park would be free of aircraft noise 75 to 100 percent of the time.
In the meantime, restrictions were enacted setting altitude limitations and establishing flight-free zones and tour routes. In 1996, further FAA regulation limited the number of aircraft authorized to fly over the Canyon, increased no-fly zones, set curfews for when they could fly and increased reporting requirements for air tour operators. It also recommended, but did not mandate, the use of quieter aircraft. Some companies followed those recommendations even without a guarantee of incentives. For example, Grand Canyon Airlines replaced 12 smaller, noisier Cessnas with six Twin Otter Vistaliners – one of the aircraft identified in the rule as using quiet technology. Its greater seating capacity has also allowed the airline to reduce the number of flights by two-thirds, said Dillon. Papillon has developed quiet technology for helicopters as well, including for the SK 55 Whisper Jet. They have also acquired newer technology such as on the EC130.
“In good faith, tour operators have moved to quiet technology aircraft even though there were no incentives or rules,” said Becker. “We made the investments as a good-faith effort to try and make things right. We hope that by using quiet helicopters we could have more allocations, have sunrise or sunset flights, or have a quiet corridor that only quiet aircraft could operate in.”
While the rule may be new, air tour operators say it was a long time in coming.
“The ‘new’ FAA rule regarding incentives for quiet aircraft technology is nothing new at all,” said Dillon. “It’s just about 18 years late in the process.”
According to McMullen the process was significantly hindered by litigation challenging each new rule and interpretation. By engaging stakeholders in the mediation process, he said they hope to be able to implement the final plan without a tangle of legal challenges.
“That’s really the case, to get them on board and let them have input,” he said. “Hopefully if the people who have been involved in lawsuits in the past will see how agencies are working and they have input all along, hopefully it will lead to a non-legal process to get what they want, or at least bend things in a certain direction.”
To that end, some 15 or 20 representatives are being selected from the 60 or so identified stakeholders – including individual air tour companies as well as the U.S. Air Tour Association, environmental groups, government entities, tribal governments and others – to form a working group that will hammer out the first-ever aircraft management plan for Grand Canyon National Park. That group is expected to meet in Flagstaff on July 13 and 14. McMullen said that while the meetings will not serve as a public forum, everything that comes out of them will be public information.
The mediation process is expected to take at least a year with alternatives developed for a draft management plan covering from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead sometime in early fall of 2006. Once a draft aircraft management plan is developed, that will go out for public comment under the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.
A presidential memorandum sets a deadline of April 22, 2008, to reach the goal of restoration of natural quiet.
Incentives to encourage the use of quiet aircraft is just one piece of the equation to meet that goal.
“Noise-efficient aircraft alone will not achieve restoration of natural quiet,” said the Grand Canyon Trust’s Clark. “It will take fewer flights, fewer corridors, quieter technology or some combination of all three.”