GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The public comment period closed Wednesday for a draft proposal that agencies have prepared for updating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Air Tour Management Plan. The plan aims to outline acceptable levels of commercial air tours consistent with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000.
The National Park Service (NPS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have prepared the draft Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP). The proposed action includes implementing an ATMP that would outline 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). NPS says that Congress developed the Act out of concern that noise from tour aircraft could harm national park resources and experiences for visitors.
Air tours in the Smokies within the national park have been ongoing since before the Act was enacted, according to officials, and 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.
GSMNP’s park planning site indicates that 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 the park.
The park says these authorized air tour 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.
The proposed plan would authorize up to 946 air tours per year on defined routes. There were on average 946 air tours per year conducted by two air tour operators reported at Great Smoky Mountains National Park from 2017 – 2019.
Comments on the proposed ATMP were accepted until October 13, 2021.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to show the comment period has closed.