March 13, 2012 – 12:21 a.m.

Deal Gives Breathing Room to Grand Canyon Flight Firms

Sen. John McCain has worked out a bipartisan deal aimed at ensuring tour flight operators continued access to the Grand Canyon and heading off efforts by some environmental groups to get the National Park Service to further restrict such sightseeing flights.

The Arizona Republican reached the deal with the help of Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose home state of Nevada is the base for many commercial air-tour operators, and Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., aides representing both parties said.

The deal would give the Park Service leeway to develop new rules governing the operations of the current 50,000 tour flights a year over the Grand Canyon. McCain and Reid have been staunch defenders of the tour flight industry.

The deal clears the way for the Park Service to limit to 65,000 a year the number of tour flights allowed to fly over the Grand Canyon, far fewer than the current 95,000 limit. It also would allow time restrictions on such flights, banning them in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. It would permit expanding a “natural quiet” area beyond the reach of such commercial tour flights to cover about two-thirds of the park. Such flights are now restricted over about half the park.

McCain won assurances that the changes would not alter the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) management of high-altitude aircraft used by commercial airlines. He also negotiated a 15-year phase-in period for quiet technology for such tour aircraft, including rotor shrouds and other noise-muffling equipment now used by air tour helicopters. The Park Service had previously said it wanted such aircraft to be equipped with the technology within 10 years.

The Senate is expected to approve the language Tuesday as an amendment to a two-year, $109 billion surface transportation reauthorization (S 1813). McCain said he was hopeful that the Senate would adopt his amendment, though he signaled that he does not underestimate the opposition. “The environmentalists have just gone nuts with the amendment,” he said.

A senior Democratic aide said the compromise represented a middle ground between McCain’s original proposal, which Reid supported, and Bingaman’s preference to allow the Park Service to proceed without any amendment.

The aide said the deal would “allow the Park Service to complete its rule-making process, without parameters or limits.” He added that the measure restates existing policy that the FAA “is responsible for management of the airspace” and states that the “Park Service and FAA are to work to eliminate” any conflict.

Bryan Faehner, a spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group, said his organization “no longer objects” to the revised McCain amendment. “While it’s not perfect, it is vastly improved,” he said.

But Rob Smith, the Sierra Club’s Southwest regional director, said his group remains opposed to the compromise, saying it could conflict with existing provisions of a 1987 law (PL 100-91) regulating sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon. “We’re still opposed,” Smith said. “But it’s less egregious than it was.”

The Park Service is expected to issue a final environmental impact statement on such tour flights by April, along with recommended restrictions. The FAA plans to consult with the Park Service in developing its own tour flight restrictions for the Grand Canyon.

The deal appears to end an uproar that arose during McCain’s 2010 re-election campaign when it was revealed that his efforts to protect tour flights could help a campaign donor, Elling B. Halvorson, chairman of Papillon Airways Inc., the largest Grand Canyon tour operator. In response, McCain withdrew an amendment aimed at limiting the authority of the Park Service that he had offered to an FAA reauthorization measure.

McCain wrote the provision in the 1987 law (PL 100-91) that directed the FAA to establish quiet aircraft standards for the Grand Canyon.