Air Tours: A Losing Proposition For the NPS

Trying to run a federal agency, one subject to the whims of both Congress and presidential administrations, is never an easy job. Just ask the folks at the National Park Service.
Much has been written across the country of the Park Service's budgetary woes, and many of those troubles can be laid directly at the feet of both Congress and past and present administrations. Not only does Congress keep piling new properties onto the agency's shoulders -- usually without the necessary dollars -- and passing inadequate budgets, but presidents don't do an adequate job of proposing sufficient funding the parks. Evidence of that is President Bush's proposed $100 million cut in the agency's Fiscal 2007 budget.
Of course, sometimes the Park Service's financial troubles are created by ill-thought-out legislation adopted by Congress.
Case in point: As many of us are encountering rising entrance fees at national parks, higher camping fees and backcountry fees, and learning about efforts by individual parks to perform a "core operations analysis" to see if they can get by on 80 percent or so of their funding, a brand-spanking-new Governmental Accountability Office report shows the Park Service is losing millions of dollars on unpaid air tour fees.
Why are the fees -- which amount to as little as $25 per plane with 25 or fewer passengers -- being lost? Frankly, it seems that bureaucratic ignorance is at work.
In a nutshell, it's because two different pieces of legislation that aim to address park air tours make it impossible for the Park Service to monitor how many flights are being flown and so it has no way to enforce the fee program.

You can find the 36-page report at the GAO's web site. It's a sad commentary on how bureaucrats can't get on the same page and how some air tour operators, when given the opportunity, will stick it to the NPS by refusing to pay fees they know the Park Service can't accurately determine.
For instance, from 2000 through 2003 13 air-tour operators who flew over Grand Canyon National Park underpaid their fees by more than $1.5 million, according to the GAO study. And that's just one park. Many other parks are losing untold revenues because Congress, in its strange way of legislating, has made it near impossible for them to collect fees they should be entitled to.
You see, while there are 86 parks where scenic overflights are conducted, just three are permitted to charge air-tour fees because of congressionally-imposed guidelines that set an incredibly high bar for the Park Service when it comes to assessing such fees. I'll explain this dilemma in a minute.
Another impediment to getting a sound fee structure and collection mechanism in place is the Federal Aviation Administration, which is empowered to oversee the safety and qualifications of air-tour operators but is not required to track their overflights and report that information to the Park Service.
Too, the agency seems to be dragging its feet a bit out of fear it could lose some tax revenue. Back in the fall of 2000 the FAA was supposed to report to Congress on potential impacts park overflight fees might have on air-tour operators. Nearly six years have passed since the deadline, yet still the FAA hasn't issued the report...in part because it worries it could lose money if air-tour operators, fearful of losing passengers by having to pass along the cost of the potential overflight fees (an average of $1 per person, based on the $25 fee for a plane with 25 passengers), are allowed to deduct the fees from their aviation excise taxes.

Two Pieces of Legislation Shield Air-Tour Operators

Now, as to the competing legislation I mentioned above. While the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 directed the Park Service to begin collecting overflight fees from tour operators at the Grand Canyon, air-tour operators are not required to record or report to the Park Service or the FAA the number of air tours they conduct over national parks, outside of Grand Canyon National Park. And at Grand Canyon, while the air-tour operators must report their overflights to the FAA, they don't have to send that information to the Park Service, and the FAA is under no obligation to "assist with collecting, or enforcing the collection of, air-tour fees," notes the GAO report.
On top of that -- this keeps getting more and more unbelievable-- the GAO reports that "neither act requires that operators' authority to conduct air tours over park units be conditioned on payment of air tour fees."
"While the Park Service could go to court seeking fees owed from non-compliant operators or refer outstanding fees to the Department of the Treasury for debt collection," the GAO states, "the agency generally lacks the evidence necessary to prove that air-tour operators have not paid all the fees owed. As a result, both Park Service and the FAA officials told us the agencies have little or no ability to take enforcement action against non-compliant operators."
Another complication: The 1993 legislation that directed the Park Service to begin collecting fees, and the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 that gives the FAA a role in regulating air tours over national parks, define air tours differently. Yep, that's right. The 1993 legislation requires the Park Service to assess fees when scenic flights actually enter a park's airspace, while the Tour Management Act "defines air tours as flights over a national park unit or within a half-mile outside its boundary."
So, when the Park Service tries to collect fees under its regulations, an operator can simply claim they never came closer than a half-mile to the park in question and so don't owe a dime.

More Bureaucratic Stupidity

There's more bureaucratic stupidity that's preventing the Park Service from collecting its just fees. Under the 1993 legislation that cleared the way for the overflight fees to be collected at the Grand Canyon and Hawaii's Haleakala National Park, other parks could institute similar fees if they 1) normally charge admission, and; 2) had overflight numbers equal to or greater than those recorded at the Grand Canyon or Haleakala.
How ridiculous is that second requirement? Following that logic, should the Park Service exempt entrance fees at parks that don't match or surpass the annual visitation at, say, the Grand Canyon or Great Smoky Mountains?
As of this past March, the FAA had authorized 14 air-tour operators to fly 91,250 air tours a year over the Grand Canyon. Ten tour operators have been permitted to fly a combined 26,325 overflights a year at Haleakala, and 14 others have been allowed to fly 28,411 trips over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which in December 1993 was permitted to charge fees because it could equal Haleakala's overflight numbers.
"By stipulating that additional park units could charge air-tour fees only if they charge admission fees and if their level of activity meets that of Grand Canyon or Haleakala, the fees legislation sets the bar very high: in the past 12 years, only one additional park unit has qualified," notes the GAO report. "Lowering the threshold for air-tour activity would allow the Park Service to expand air-our fees to additional park units and use the proceeds as appropriate under the recreation fee program."
Where do other park units with permitted overflights stand? Well, at Lake Mead National Recreation Area nearly 69,000 annual overflights have been permitted, although the actual number of flights could be closer to 12,880, and the FAA believes many of those could be "transportation-only flights" en route to Grand Canyon National Park.
There are 14,074 overflights approved for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and 10,175 at Rainbow Bridge National Monument. At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, there are 8,170 permitted overflights each year, but since the seashore doesn't charge an entrance fee it can't charge an overflight fee under the existing rules. That's the same case at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where there are 5,608 permitted air tours.
The list goes on an on, touching on Acadia National Park (4,585 permitted air tours), Bryce Canyon National Park (3,488), Canyonlands National Park (1,039) and all the way down to the Rio Grand Wild & Scenic River, which is permitted five overflights a year.
Put all the numbers together and multiply by $25 and you'll see that the Park Service is missing out on a huge chunk of change that it could put to good use on the ground throughout the national park system.
"Park Service officials told us they would like to charge air-tour fees at additional park units that charge admission fees, but the fees legislation would have to be changed to lower the air-tour activity threshold," states the GAO report.

Brazen Air-Tour Operators

Now, about that lost revenue. Above I noted the $1.5 million lost at the Grand Canyon from 2000 through 2003. At Hawaii Volcanoes, "one operator, who owed more than $360,000 as of January 2005, has publicly stated that it stopped paying fees because other operators were not paying," the GAO report points out. (The report does note that the operator began paying the fees again beginning in November 2005).
More incredulously, while the Park Service filed lawsuits against three operators at the Grand Canyon to recoup unpaid fees amounting to about $800,000, a sum that the operators eventually agreed to pay, "Park Service officials told us the operators have stopped making such payments, and the park unit has taken no further action."
At a time when there is much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the Park Service's financial plight, when various park fees are going up while services are being reduced, you'd think there'd be a quick, easy solution to this overflight fee collection problem.
And, indeed, there does seem to be one, as the GAO notes: "If the geographic applicability of the acts were consistent, operators could record and report one set of data to the Park Service for verification and collection of fees and for air-tour management plans."
Let's just hope the congressfolk who requested this study -- Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- agree that the solution really is quite simple.
And while you're at it, guys, lower the threshold that parks must meet to begin charging overflight fees.