-The Jackson Hole Airport must comply with both Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, and its agreement with the Department of the Interior (DOI) under which the Airport operates in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP).
-Among other things, FAA requires that the Airport be open to “all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical uses.” This prohibits the Airport from picking and choosing the type of aeronautical activity it will accept.
-Exceptions exist for safety, but safety decisions are reserved to FAA alone. FAA has found that the Robinson R-44 helicopter is safe to operate at the Airport.
-FAA also prohibits the Airport from granting anyone an “exclusive right to provide a particular type of aeronautical activity.” Because two agreements already allow commercial scenic tours from the Airport, and others allow the operation of helicopters, it would be discriminatory to deny a new operator the same rights.
-In most cases, under the DOI agreement no scenic flights may originate at the Airport and fly over noise sensitive areas of GTNP, as those areas are defined in the agreement. The Airport Board is prohibited from otherwise regulating the routes of aircraft which land at or depart from the Airport.
-Generally, scenic air tour flights may overfly GTNP only if they comply with the federal Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (ATMA).
How We Got Here
-In 2001, FAA clarified that scenic flights that overfly GTNP, only for the purposes of landing and taking-off, do not trigger the ATMA, and must be permitted at the Airport.
-In August 2018, the Airport received an application from Wind River Air LLC (WRA) to provide out-and-back helicopter flights to and from the Airport. This original application proposed dedicated ramp space and flights over GTNP.
-Since dedicated space could not be provided by the Airport, and clearance under the ATMA would be required for flights over GTNP, WRA modified its application.
-The modified application excluded dedicated ramp space and avoided GTNP overflights. The Airport Board recommended that WRA consult with GTNP, the National Wildlife Refuge, the Town and the County regarding noise concerns before pursuing its application.
-Scenic air tours, by either fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, are allowed to operate over private lands in Teton County, national forests, National Elk Refuge and wilderness areas. So long as aircraft maintain an altitude of 2,000 above ground level, federal law permits and protects them.
-Since Congress has given the FAA exclusive jurisdiction over aircraft in flight, state and local governments, and even federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service cannot prohibit scenic flights.
-On April 24, 2020 the JH Airport Board approved Wind River Air’s permit to operate scenic tours from the Airport, but shortened the term from three-years to one-year. Moving forward, most Airport contracts for commercial aeronautical operations will be limited to one-year.
-Wind River Air agreed to participate in the Fly Quiet Program https://www.jacksonholeairport.com/airport-guide/environmental-initiatives/ and will work with Airport staff to continue to adapt its operations to adhere to best practices.
-Wind River Air will also participate in discussions with the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, FAA, the National Elk Refuge, and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department toward the adoption of voluntary air tour management plan designed to identify and mitigate the impacts of scenic air tours.
-Before the vote, several Airport Board members spoke of wrestling with this decision. However, Board members also spoke of their responsibility to uphold contractual obligations, abide by the law, and be fair and equal to all aviation users.
-Moving forward, the Airport will continue to work with Wind River Air to ensure that best practices are being followed, and with the Wyoming Congressional Delegation toward new measures to protect public lands.