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Sat, Feb 10, 2007

Initial Response To Air Tours Rule... It Coulda Been Worse

AOPA, NATA, EAA Concerned With Impact On Charity Flights, Tour Operators

The FAA's final rule on air tour operations, released Thursday, has so far drawn measured responses from the aviation community. Representatives with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the National Air Transport Association (NATA), and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) tell ANN the impact the rule will have on Part 91 operations is as minimal as could be hoped for... but may still be detrimental to pilots flying for charity fundraisers.

"The FAA has agreed with AOPA’s contention that small air tour operators who stay within 25 statute miles of their departure point should be able to continue to fly under Part 91 instead of being forced to operate under much more expensive Part 135 regulations," said Luis Gutierrez, AOPA director of regulatory and certification policy. "That decision is likely to be the difference between literally hundreds of small sightseeing operations across the country staying in business or going under."

AOPA points out the biggest change for Part 91 sightseeing operators will be that they now have to get a letter of authorization from the FAA.

There are also some new safety requirements... but for most fixed wing operators, they should not prove to be a major financial burden.

Pilots and associated organizations using charity sightseeing flights to raise money, however, will not be pleased. The new rule more than doubles the required minimum flight time for private pilots to conduct these flights.

"Despite AOPA’s arguments, the FAA raised the minimum experience level for private pilots from 200 to 500 hours," Gutierrez said. "The FAA based their action on the fact that more accidents occur with pilots between 200 and 500 hours. But because the majority of pilots fall into that range, the statistics used by the FAA to justify the change may not reflect the true safety record of pilots in this experience level, but rather their increased exposure."

"This move unnecessarily reduces the number of pilots available to give charity sightseeing flights by 22 percent," Gutierrez adds.

The NATA agrees its initial review of the final rules shows the FAA appears to have acknowledged many of the concerns voiced over its initial rulemaking proposal.

"We are pleased that the final rule protects the long-standing tradition of permitting local sightseeing flights by private operators. Elimination of this provision would have devastated many small businesses and deprived the public of the all-too-rare opportunity to experience flight in a small general aviation aircraft," said NATA President James K. Coyne.

For those conducting commercial air tours, the FAA heeded calls from many commenters that certain provisions of Part 136 were unnecessary. Proposals to establish nationwide standoff distances, minimum altitudes, cloud clearance and visibility requirements were all removed from the final rule. Additionally, life preserver requirements were revised and clarified.

Requirements for floats on helicopters remain; however, the provision was clarified to state it applies only to helicopters used in operations where a portion of the flight is over water, and then only when the helicopter cannot reach shore in an emergency.

 "Because the rules became available only [Thursday], in-depth review is still on-going, but on the whole it would appear that the FAA has accepted many of the changes recommended by industry and has attempted to lessen the impact of these regulations," Coyne noted. "While the agency’s efforts are appreciated, we are still concerned about the cumulative impact of the final rules, particularly for helicopter operators."

"The devil may yet be in the details," Coyne warned.

The EAA is pouring over each and every detail of the 107-page NPRM, and what the new rules mean to charity flights, as well as commercial and sightseeing air tour operations. The regulations will affect a significant part of certain flying by EAA and many of its members -- including the B-17 tour, Pioneer Airport operations, and Young Eagles flights. Many EAAers also provide "barnstorming" flights that will be affected by the new regulations.

"EAA members should realize that this rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register (as of Friday, February 9), and will not become effective until 30 days after publication," said Earl Lawrence, EAA vice president of government and regulatory affairs. "We will complete our analysis by early next week, then determine the best course of action for our members and other aviation enthusiasts."

In all, over 2,300 comments were received by the FAA following publication of the original NPRM -- most of them opposing a proposal that would have required full air carrier certification for local sightseeing operations while imposing overly restrictive requirements on all commercial air tour operators.

FMI: Read The Full NPRM, www.aopa.org, www.nata.aero, www.eaa.org

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