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Tourists experience the wonder of Grand Canyon National Park from the vantage of a helicopter.
Tourists experience the wonder of Grand Canyon NP from the vantage of a helicopter. NPS photo

The Overflights Program works cooperatively with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Park Service parks, and air tour operators to develop air tour management agreements. The agreements are designed to protect park resources and visitor use without compromising aviation safety or the nation's air traffic control system. They establish conditions for conducting air tours, including specific routes, altitudes, number of flights, type of aircraft, hours of operations, and reporting requirements.

Air Tour Management Plans

The National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continue working together to implement the National Parks Air Tour Management Act (NPATMA). Voluntary Agreements (VAs) are currently in place in four parks (Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, and Rainbow Bridge National Monument). The agencies will be developing additional VAs or Air Tour Management Plans (ATMPs) for the following park units: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Mount Rainier National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and Death Valley National Park. More detailed information with respect to the plans for each park will be available after September 30, 2019. Questions should be directed to Jeffrey Olson, Chief, Natural Resource Office of Communication. Email Jeffrey Olson.

The agreements are available on request. Contact the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division for information.

Establishing Voluntary Agreements and Air Tour Management Plans Under the National Parks Air Tour Management Act

Implementation Plan & Schedule September 30, 2019


As announced on August 9, 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Park Service (NPS) will establish Voluntary Agreements (“Agreements”) or Air Tour Management Plans (“Plans”) for seven National Park System units in the near term. These actions by the two agencies will build on the Agreements already in place in four National Park System units, and will pave the way for the agencies to complete Agreements or Plans at all covered parks.

In addition to identifying the seven parks and setting out the key milestones for each park, this fact sheet provides important information and addresses key questions about these upcoming activities, such as how these parks were selected, how additional parks will be prioritized, and how the agencies will determine whether to pursue an Agreement or Plan at a particular park. This overall schedule sets out actions under the National Parks Air Tour Management Act (“NPATMA”) by the FAA and the NPS during the next two and a half years and will be supplemented by more detailed, park-specific implementation plans. Finally, the agencies will review and update this schedule on an ongoing basis, as appropriate, with a goal of identifying opportunities to accelerate the current schedule

Badlands National Park

  • Publish notice of a draft fixed wing operator Agreement for public comment on the agencies’ websites by 10/31/2019;
  • Address public comments and publish the final fixed wing operator Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 1/31/2020.
  • Continue ongoing preparatory work for an Agreement with the helicopter operator, prepare a draft Agreement with the helicopter operator by 11/30/2019;
  • Publish public notice of draft helicopter operator Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 2/1/2020;
  • Address public comments and publish the final helicopter operator Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 4/30/2020.

Mt.Rushmore National Memorial

  • Publish public notice of fixed wing operator Agreement for public comment on the agencies’ websites by 10/31/2019;
  • Address public comments and publish the final fixed wing operator Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 1/31/2020.
  • Finish ongoing preparatory work for an Agreement with the helicopter operator, to be completed by11/30/2019;
  • Formally initiate an Agreement process with the helicopter operator by 12/1/2019; Complete preparatory work and begin drafting an Agreement with the helicopter operator(s) by 4/1/2020;
  • Publish public notice and the draft Agreement with the helicopter operator(s) on the agencies’ websites for public comment by 9/1/2020;
  • Address public comments and publish a final Agreement with the helicopter operator(s) on the agencies’ websites by 11/30/2020.

Death Valley National Park

  • Begin preparatory work necessary for a Plan process by 3/1/2020;
  • Complete preparatory work and formally initiate a Plan process by 5/1/2020;
  • Complete work related to initiating a Plan process and publish a Notice of Intent to prepare a Plan on the agencies’ websites by 12/1/2020;
  • Complete a draft Plan and publish the draft Plan on the agencies’ websites for public comment by 6/1/2021;
  • Address public comments and publish a final Plan on the agencies’ websites by 12/31/2021.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • Begin necessary preparatory work for an Agreement process by 10/1/2020;
  • Formally initiate an Agreement process and begin drafting an Agreement by 8/1/2021;
  • Publish a public notice and the draft Agreement on the agencies’ websites for public comment by 1/1/2022;
  • Address public comments and publish a final Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 3/31/2022.

Mt. Rainier National Park

  • Begin necessary preparatory work for an Agreement process by 11/1/2020;
  • Complete preparatory work and formally initiate an Agreement process by 1/1/2021;
  • Complete a draft Agreement and publish the draft Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 11/1/2021;
  • Address public comments and publish a final Agreement on the agencies’ websites by 1/31/2022.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

  • Transition to a Plan process and begin necessary preparatory work by 11/1/2020;
  • Complete preparatory work and formally initiate a Plan process by 1/1/2021;

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

  • Complete work related to initiating a Plan process and publish a Notice of Intent to Prepare a Plan on the agencies’ websites by 5/1/2021;
  • Complete a draft Plan and publish the draft Plan on the agencies’ websites for public comment by 10/1/2021;
  • Address public comments and publish a final Plan on the agencies’ websites by 5/31/2022.

Q&A

The agencies considered a variety of factors in selecting seven parks for near term action, including level of air tour activity, ongoing efforts and activity, the capacity and capabilities of the parks to undertake the NPATMA process given other on-going issues at a specific park, and the likely overall complexity of the Agreement/Plan. In addition, the selected parks are representative of the various issues and factors the agencies must address at other parks subject to NPATMA. For example, Death Valley National Park has very low air tour activity and designated Wilderness areas. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a moderate number of air tours and comprises a wide range of vegetation from primarily deciduous forests in some areas and evergreens at higher elevations, both of which affect noise attenuation. Mount Rushmore National Memorial has high levels of air tour activity over a very small geographic area with high visitation. Mount Rainier National Park was chosen because it was exempt and then withdrawn from exemption, which will likely affect the range of alternatives developed for the Plan. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was chosen because Agreements exist for some but, not all, of the operators conducting air tours. Finally, Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a small cultural park with many tribal issues including designation as a Traditional Cultural Property for which tribal consultation is necessary.

The agencies believe that this diverse mix of parks will require different techniques and provide the viability of a range of approaches in completing Agreements and Plans. It is emphasized that the agencies will work to complete these parks as expeditiously as possible and will begin work in additional parks on a rolling basis as work is completed and resources are available.

The FAA and the NPS are committed to implementing Agreements or Plans, as required by NPATMA. As work progresses or is completed in one park, work will begin on additional parks on a rolling basis. The agencies will apply lessons learned from the initial seven parks to subsequent parks. While the agencies are not yet in a position to specify with certainty the next group of parks, they will consider the selection factors identified above and apply lessons learned from the seven initial parks to inform which parks will be addressed next.

The FAA and the NPS prefer to work collaboratively with all stakeholders through the Agreement process and view Agreements with high compliance as the preferred means of implementing NPATMA. Agreements can take into account the impacts of air tours on national parks, while also taking into account opportunities for small businesses, visitor experience, and public demand. Agreements provide the agencies with more flexibility and are often more expedient than Plans. However, if operators are unwilling to enter into Agreements or negotiate terms that are acceptable to the agencies, the FAA and the NPS will develop Plans. If the agencies initiate work on an Agreement, but are unable to reach agreement with operators in a reasonable timeframe, the agencies will transition to a Plan process and complete a Plan instead. If parties are not able to reach concurrence on a draft agreement no later than 18 months after formal initiation, the agencies will complete the process as a Plan, absent extraordinary circumstances. In these situations, the agencies will be well poised to expedite the timeframe for completion of the Plan because much of the work that will have been done for the Agreement can be incorporated directly into the Plan or used to inform various sections of the Plan.

Depending on the level of complexity, Agreements and Plans can take from 18 to 34 months to complete based on the number of steps in the process and the required consultations between agencies, operators, tribal governments, and the public. There are some opportunities to accelerate the timeline, as well as situations that will require additional time. In general, the process includes data collection, modeling and analysis, preparation and negotiation of Plan and Agreement substance and text, public review and comment, and completion. More detailed information on the process can be found in the Agreement and Plan flowchart (below). It is also likely that as the agencies gain more experience over time, the overall timeframe for completion will be reduced.

While implementing the provisions of NPATMA has proven challenging, the NPS and the FAA are working closely together and dedicating the necessary resources to ensure that Agreements or Plans are established at covered parks. As an example, the establishment of Agreements at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument in 2018 was an important milestone because they covered two parks with significant air tour activity by a number of operators over a large area with a number of park-specific features to consider. It also involved extensive tribal consultation, which is a significant factor to address in completing Agreements and Plans.

The FAA and the NPS are building on the experience from the Glen Canyon/Rainbow Bridge Agreements as well as the Agreements completed at Big Cypress National Preserve and Biscayne National Park to establish an ambitious, but achievable timeline for completing Agreements or Plans at seven parks over the next two and a half years. This effort will require additional resources and commitment by the agencies and stakeholders, and will serve to create a track record and establish practices and procedures to enable system wide implementation. Additionally, the agencies are working to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our enforcement regarding Agreements, Plans, reporting requirements, and Interim Operating Authority (IOA) to ensure the process is successful.

Agreement and Plan Flowchart

a flow chart of ATMP Process

Text Alternative for the Agreement and Plan Flowchart

Top left column on chart begins with: “Voluntary Agreement Process Flow (18-24 months)”
  1. Preparatory Work: 2 months
  2. Formally Initiate VA process: 2 months
  3. Collect, Review, Analyze Information: 6-12 months
  4. Prepare Preliminary Draft VA: 3 months
    1. If VA is unsuccessful move to Publish Notice of Intent to prepare an Air Tour Management Plan
    2. If VA is successful move to 5 (below)
  5. Review/Concurrence of VA Parties: 2 months
  6. Public Notification: 1 month
  7. Signature and Publication: 2 months
Top right column on chart begins with: “ATMP Process Flow (23-24 months)”
  1. Preparatory Work: 2 months
  2. Formally Initiate ATMP Process: 2-3 months
  3. Review/Identify Potential Options: 3-6 months
  4. Publish Notice of Intent: 3 months
  5. Draft of NEPA Document/ATMP: 6-12 month
  6. Public Comment: 1-2 months
  7. Review and Respond to Comments: 3 months
  8. Final NEPA Document/ATMP: 3 months
Graphic correlates numbers and areas of air tour activity in U.S. national parks in 2017. Refer to the accompanying 2017 Annual Report for specific details.
Graphic correlates numbers and areas of air tour activity in U.S. national parks in 2017. Refer to the accompanying 2017 Annual Report for specific details.

J. A. Beeco / NPS

Air Tour Reports

The NPS and FAA collect information from air tour companies that fly over national parks. The companies submit their information on the Commerical Air Tours Reporting Form. The data provide high-level overviews of air tour activity, including the number of flights per year.

The NPS and FAA jointly established the National Parks Overflights Advisory Group in 2001. This group provides continuing advice and counsel with respect to commercial air tour operations over and near national parks. They work with other stakeholders, such as air tour operators and tribes, to address a range of general aviation and environmental concerns.

Historic photo of the Wright Brothers flying the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, and summary information about air tour history.
National Park Service Story Map gives a history of overflights in NPS parks.

Adam Beeco / NPS

Learn more about the history of air tours from the NPS Story Map of the History of Overflights at National Park Service Units.

The NPS Overflights team also provides technical assistance to parks. Assistance includes monitoring acoustic conditions, analyzing acoustic and visitor survey data, developing ambient acoustic baseline information, and planning for the management of air tours.

Additional Information

  • National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 as amended.
    The National Parks Air Tour Management Act has been amended several times by separate public laws. 49 United States Code Section 40128, Overflights of National Parks, collates the original law with subsequent amendments, and deletes language that has been repealed.

Last updated: October 1, 2019