Court Orders FAA to Reduce Flight Noise over Grand Canyon Park

AUGUST 16, 2002

A federal appeals court told the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday to write new rules to reduce the noise from aircraft buzzing over the Grand Canyon. The decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was a victory for environmentalists, who argued the number of air tours over the Grand Canyon was spoiling the serenity of the national park.

At issue was the FAA's implementation of the 1987 National Park Overflights Act, in which Congress directed the FAA and the National Park Service to restore natural quiet in the Grand Canyon by reducing noise from low-flying aircraft. The Park Service said at least half the park should be free of human sound for three-fourths of the daylight hours. The FAA responded with a series of restrictions and route limitations, capping the number of flights at about 90,000 per year.

The Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group, sued the FAA over how it measured noise in the park. The FAA wanted to average the noise over an entire year, meaning noisy summer days would be offset by quiet days during the winter, when air tours are scarce.

The court unanimously ruled that it doesn't make sense to use average noise measurements. "For the typical visitor, who visits the Grand Canyon for just a few days during the peak summer season, the fact that the park is quiet 'on average' is cold comfort," Judge Merrick Garland wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. Under the FAA's interpretation, the natural quiet would be restored in less than one-third of the park; on the busiest day, just 19 percent of the park would be noise-free.

The court also said the FAA must consider other planes, such as commercial aircraft, that fly over the park, or else prove they don't make audible noise on the ground.

"We're extremely pleased with the ruling," said Geoff Barnard, president of the Grand Canyon Trust. "Every visitor has a right to the natural quiet and the silence and solitude of the canyon no matter when they come."

The U.S. Air Tour Association had also challenged the FAA rules, but the court dismissed all the association's challenges. Steve Bassett, president of the association, said: "This opinion is especially disheartening in light of the continuing significant impact Sept. 11 is having on the air tour industry." Air tour operators have seen a drop of 30 percent to 50 percent in passengers, he said. "What it basically says is the Park Service can do whatever it wants to do. That's the frightening part of this," Bassett said.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said government attorneys are reviewing the verdict before deciding what the next step may be.

Source: Association Press via New Jersey Online