Air Tours

On This Page Navigation

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 manage low flying air tours in order 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 Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (NPATMA) governs commercial air tours over national parks, and tribal lands within or abutting national parks, and establishes oversight authority by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the operators wishing to conduct such tours. The Act requires that the FAA, and the National Park Service (NPS), jointly develop Air Tour Management Plan (ATMPs) for park or tribal lands where air tour operations occur or are proposed. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 amended the Act to allow the FAA and the NPS to enter into voluntary agreements (VAs) with air tour operators as an alternative to developing ATMPs. The 2012 amendments also exempt national parks with 50 or fewer tours annually from the ATMP and VA requirements.

On February 14, 2019, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Hawaii Coalition Malama Pono filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit seeking to have the FAA and the NPS complete air tour management plans or voluntary agreements at seven specified parks. On May 1, 2020, the Court granted the petition and ordered the FAA and the NPS to file a proposed schedule within 120 days for bringing 23 parks into compliance with NPATMA within two years or to provide specific concrete reasons why it would take longer. The agencies will also be required to submit quarterly updates on their progress.

The agencies submitted the proposed schedule to the Court for approval on August 31, 2020. As of the submission date, there are no ATMPs in place for the 23 parks that are required to have an ATMPs, as mandated by the NPATMA and the Court.

The NPS and the FAA are working together to implement NPATMA. Voluntary agreements are currently in place in four parks (Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, and Rainbow Bridge National Monument). Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument are in the group of 23 parks because voluntary agreements are in place for only seven of the nine operators. Under the Act, the agencies need to get the remaining operators to sign voluntary agreements or do an ATMP to cover both parks.

The agencies intend to begin work on all 23 ATMPs at the same time, and, to the maximum extent possible, consolidate the administrative processes and streamline activities under NEPA, in order to complete all of the ATMPs within two years.

Frequently Asked Questions

On February 14, 2019, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Hawai'i Coalition Malama Pono filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit alleging diminished enjoyment of seven specific parks (Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Haleakalā National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Muir

Woods National Monument, Glacier National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park.) The petition requested that the Court direct the agencies to complete Air Tour Management Plans (ATMP) for these seven parks. On May 1, 2020, the Court granted the petition. The Court ordered the agencies to submit within 120 days a schedule for bringing, not just the seven parks identified in the complaint, but, all 23 eligible parks (based on reported air tour data from 2018) into compliance with NPATMA within two years or to show specific, concrete reasons why doing so will take longer.
Yes. The NPS and FAA submitted a schedule to the court on August 31, 2020 to complete air tour management plans at the 23 parks referenced in the court’s order within two years.
The court has not yet responded to the proposed plan.
The Act, which Congress passed in 2000, governs commercial air tours in national parks. It requires the FAA, in cooperation with the NPS, to develop an Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) or Voluntary Agreement (VA) for each park or tribal land where air tour operations occur or are proposed. The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act exempted parks with 50 or fewer annual tours from this requirement. The act is codified at 49 USC § 40128.
The National Parks Air Tour Management Plan Act defines an ATMP as a plan used to develop acceptable and effective measures to mitigate or prevent the significant adverse impacts, if any, of commercial air tour operations upon the natural and cultural resources, visitor experiences, and tribal lands.
The National Parks Air Tour Management Act requires air tour operators to report overflight numbers to the FAA and NPS. The number of air tours conducted over parks varies from year to year (typically around 48,000 per year). Reports are listed on this page below the questions.
The NPS and FAA are coordinating to implement an ambitious schedule that consolidates administrative processes wherever possible to complete the air tour management plans within two years.
At this time, the agencies are unaware of any specific, concrete circumstances that will prevent the agencies from completing ATMPs for all twenty-three parks. However, if it appears that there may be a delay in completing any of the ATMPs, the NPS and FAA will identify the specific and concrete reasons for the delay and report to the court at the earliest possible time. The agencies will work to ensure that a delay at one park will not impact the schedule for other parks. If an unexpected delay does occur that affects the timeline for completing the ATMP for one or more parks, the agencies will take appropriate actions to minimize impacts to the schedule.
Potential delays include consultation requirements with Tribes, as well as those under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). More attention to certain components of the plan may be necessary after the public, stakeholders, and Tribes have had the opportunity to provide input.
Based on reported air tour data from 2018, 54 national parks are exempt from the requirement to develop air tour management plans or voluntary agreements because they have 50 or fewer annual air tours. The number of exempt parks may change from year to year based on data reported by air tour operators.
Yes. NPATMA requires the agencies to publish the proposed ATMP in the Federal Register for notice and comment and make copies of the proposed plan available to the public.
The twenty-three National Park System units referenced by the court order are:

1. Arches National Park, Utah
2. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
3. Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
5. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
6. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
7. Death Valley National Park, California
8. Everglades National Park, Florida
9. Glacier National Park, Montana
10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area; Arizona, Utah
11. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
12. Great Smoky Mountains National Park; Tennessee, North Carolina
13. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
14. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
15. Lake Mead National Recreation Area; Arizona, Nevada
16. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
17. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
18. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
19. National Parks of New York Harbor Management Unit; New York, New Jersey
20. Olympic National Park, Washington
21.Point Reyes National Seashore, California
22. Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah
23. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, California
Map of the united states with blue dots indicating locations where there were reported air tours in 2019.
Graphic correlates numbers and areas of air tour activity in U.S. national parks in 2019.

B. Phillips / NPS

Air Tour Reports

Beginning in 2013, commercial air tour operators who conduct tours over national parks have been required to report their air tour activity to the FAA and NPS. The agencies use these data to implement requirements of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act (NPATMA), including the identification of parks where an air tour management plan or agreement is required.

The table below displays the number of reported tours in calendar year 2019 at the 78 national parks where one or more air tour operators hold authority to conduct tours. The National Parks Air Tour Management Act requires that park units with more than 50 annual tours establish an air tour management plan or agreement. While units with 50 or fewer tours are exempt from the requirement to establish a plan or agreement, NPS may withdraw an exemption if NPS determines that a plan or agreement is necessary to protect park resource and values, or visitor use and enjoyment.

Based on the 2019 data, 29 parks require a plan or agreement – 27 parks with more than 50 tours and 2 parks with less than 50 tours but where NPS has withdrawn the exemption (Death Valley National Park, and Mount Rainier National Park). The remaining 49 parks listed in the table qualify for the exemption based on 2019 data because the number of tours has not exceeded 50.

Park Units that Require an Air Tour Management Plan or Agreement

A) -- With 50 or fewer flights in previous years, NPS withdrew the exemption for Canyon de Chelly National Monument in 2017.    
B) -- NPS withdrew exemption for this park unit in 2015, therefore, an air tour management plan or agreement is required.

Park Units that Require an Air Tour Management Plan or Agreement
National Park System UnitStateTotal Reported Air Tours

Units that Qualify for the Exemption

The National Parks Air Tour Management Act exempts park units with 50 or fewer tours from the requirement to establish a plan or agreement. These park units qualify for the exemption based on 2019 data because the number of tours has not exceeded 50.

Units that Qualify for the Exemption
National Park System UnitStateTotal Reported Air Tours

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.

Additional Information

Image of a Story Map screen
National Park Service Story Map gives a history of overflights in NPS parks.

Adam Beeco / NPS

Last updated: November 17, 2020

Experience More

Subjects