Air Tour Management Plan
The proposed action is to implement an Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) that would delineate acceptable levels of commercial air tours including, but not limited to, frequency, duration, altitude, and routes, consistent with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (Act). Congress developed the Act out of concern that noise from tour aircraft could harm national park resources and experiences for visitors.
Background and Purpose:
The Act, as amended, requires that all commercial air tour operators conducting or intending to conduct a commercial air tour operation over a unit of the National Park system apply to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for authority to undertake such activity. The Act further requires the FAA, in cooperation with the National Park Service (NPS), to establish an ATMP or voluntary agreement for each park that did not have such a plan or agreement in place at the time the applications were made, unless a park has been otherwise exempted from this requirement.
The Act applies to areas within and 1/2 mile outside of a park, and to elevations below 5,000 feet above ground level (AGL). The Act requires that an ATMP include incentives for the adoption of quiet aircraft technology and provide for the allocation of opportunities to conduct air tours when the ATMP limits the number of operations. An ATMP may prohibit commercial air tour operations (in whole or in part), and can establish conditions for the conduct of air tour operations (including routes, altitudes, time-of-day restrictions, restrictions for particular events, maximum numbers of flights, or other provisions).
In establishing an ATMP, the Act requires the agencies to publish the proposed plan for notice and comment and hold at least one public meeting. The public meeting for this ATMP will be held on September 16, 2021, and comments on this ATMP will be accepted until October 3, 2021. Air tours at the Park have been ongoing since before the Act was enacted. The Act directed the FAA to grant interim operating authority (IOA) to operators that were already conducting tours at the Park when the Act became effective until an ATMP is developed. An operator's IOA is based on the number of the operator reported it was conducting annually at the time the Act was passed. IOA does not set routes or operating conditions for an operator except to limit the number of air tours the operator is permitted to fly each year. Implementation of an ATMP will replace IOA.
Existing Conditions for Commercial Air Tours at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Two commercial air tour operators, Whirl'd Helicopters, Inc. and Great Smoky Mountain Helicopter, Inc. (Smoky Mountain Helicopters, M Helicopters of TN, Delta Helicopters, Cherokee Helicopters), currently conduct commercial air tours at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The operators hold Interim Operating Authority (IOA) for a combined total of 1,920 flights at the Park each year. Whirl'd Helicopters, Inc. holds IOA for 1,800 flights at the Park each year, and Great Smoky Mountain Helicopter, Inc. holds IOA for 120 flights at the Park each year. Based on the three-year average of reporting data from 2017-2019, Whirl'd Helicopters, Inc. conducts an average of 864 commercial air tours at the Park each year. Great Smoky Mountain Helicopter, Inc. is estimated to conduct 82 commercial air tours at the Park each year. Whirl'd Helicopters, Inc. conducts commercial air tours on four different routes within the Park, and all are flown using a BHT-206-L1 rotorcraft. Based on the three-year average of reporting data from 2017-2019, the most frequently flown route is the Red Route (SNPF), representing 90 percent of all commercial air tours flown at the Park by this operator. Great Smoky Mountain Helicopter, Inc. conducts commercial air tours on two different routes within the Park, each flown using a BHT-206-B rotorcraft. The most frequently flown route is the Orange Route (Gatlinburg), representing 85 percent of all commercial air tours flown at the Park by this operator. All routes flown by both operators are flown between 1,000 feet (ft.) and 1,500 ft. above ground level (AGL). Altitude expressed in AGL units is a measurement of the distance between the ground surface and the aircraft. Commercial air tours may occur at any time and on any day of the week.
Under existing conditions, the annual number of commercial air tours at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is limited by the IOA; however, there are no designated parameters on route, time-of-day, or altitude restrictions to further protect Park resources or visitor experience. Currently, no procedures are in place that allow the Park to establish no-fly periods for special events or planned Park management. There are currently no training or education requirements for the commercial air tour operators flying over the Park. The provisions and conditions in the proposed ATMP address these parameters in a manner designed to protect Park resources and visitor experience from the effects of commercial air tours and support NPS management objectives for the Park.
Several federally threatened/endangered species are present/have critical habitat in the project area. The NPS and FAA have begun informal consultation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and anticipate a determination of not likely to adversely affect Carolina northern flying squirrel, Indiana bat, and northern long-eared bat; and no effect on the remaining species.
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)
Pursuant to 36 CFR 800.2(a)(2), the FAA has been designated the lead Federal agency acting on behalf of the NPS and is fulfilling the collective responsibilities of both agencies under Section 106 of NHPA. Section 106 consultations are ongoing.
Submit written comments to:
National Park Service
Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division
1201 Oakridge Dr., Suite 100
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Persons requesting reasonable accommodations for the meeting, call 865-436-1207
The National Park Service (NPS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have prepared a draft Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) for Great Smoky Mountains National Park to delineate acceptable levels of commercial air tours, including, but not limited to, frequency, duration, altitude, and routes, consistent with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. The ATMP is consistent with the Park's 1999 General Management Plan and subsequent planning efforts in that it includes a provision on phasing out air tours through attrition. The plan is on public review until October 3, 2021. The proposed action, background and purpose are described below.