Flight tour companies seek solutions

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2000

For the past 18 years, as a manager, owner and operator of helicopter flightseeing tours, I have been privileged to share the place I love with visitors. Through their eyes, I am constantly made aware of what a wonderful place Juneau really is. I enjoy sharing the surrounding natural beauty with residents and visitors and I am working hard to preserve and protect our environment.

As a Juneau resident, with friends, family and neighbors here, I am aware that the flightseeing industry does have noise impacts that bother some people. That's why I have worked with the community and other flightseeing operators to find ways to constructively solve problems and address impacts. It is important for Juneau residents to have a clear understanding of the facts as they consider this issue. A few important clarifications follow.

The flightseeing industry does pay taxes and contributes to the Juneau economy. The federal government prohibits state or local taxation of air transportation because all commercial aviation is subject to federal excise taxes. The money collected from the excise taxes is used to fund the air traffic control system and airport infrastructure. Air tour passengers also help Juneau qualify to receive funds. Juneau has received approximately $11 million of these federal dollars in the last five years that were used for airport improvements and major equipment.

Tour operators pay sales tax on the ground portion of trips and on the sale of other goods and services. Operators pay property tax on equipment and facilities and pay various permit fees to the city and to the forest service. Twenty-five percent of these forest service fees come back to local communities. Helicopter tour operators also paid an additional Forest Service fee of $40,000 last year that was used for local projects.

Flightseeing operators employ hundreds of local residents, both year-round and seasonally, who also pay sales and property taxes. In addition, operators buy millions of dollars of local goods and services and significantly contribute to nonprofit organizations and charities.

Along with the issue of taxes, there are also misconceptions regarding flightseeing noise. Although flightseeing noise is often no louder than noise from other common community activities - such as auto traffic, trucks, lawn mowers, and construction noise - it is sometimes perceived differently because it comes from above. Federal law does not allow one class or type of operation to be singled out for restrictions. Setting noise limits at a level that would preclude flightseeing operations would also limit the level of many other common community activities.

Flightseeing operators recognize that the sound from our flights is disturbing to some people. We have been working to minimize the impact by adjusting routes to avoid residential areas and by increasing flight altitudes. Our efforts have also included switching to quieter and larger aircraft in order to control the number of flights. These changes have been effective but operators recognize that more needs to be done.

Operators have worked throughout the winter, at the request of Mayor Egan, on a comprehensive review of what can be done to further reduce noise. The suggestions to the mayor include refinement of routes and altitudes, including avoiding several recreation and trail areas. The consideration of developing a satellite heliport(s) that would reduce flights over noise-sensitive areas and working with cruise lines to adjust ship schedules to avoid mid afternoon arrivals resulting in late evening flights. And making quiet-technology aircraft economically viable for operators to acquire through low-interest loans and removing tax disincentives. While quiet technology currently exists for fixed-winged airplanes, a next-generation quiet technology helicopter appropriate for tour operations is not yet available. I, along with other industry representatives, have been working with helicopter manufacturers for several years to introduce a quieter helicopter for tour operations. Those efforts should pay off in the next year or two.

It has been erroneously stated at several local meetings that flightseeing operators have applied to the Forest Service for double the amount of current landings. Actually, projected growth in demand for flightseeing tours is only about 5 percent per year. And the implementation of even some of the suggestions made to Mayor Egan by the industry will result in a significant reduction in impact of flightseeing over time.

I believe Juneau's flightseeing operators are committed to working constructively with the Juneau community, the city, and the Forest Service to identify and implement ways to reduce the industry's impacts and allow our businesses to operate. I hope the Juneau community will choose a constructive, cooperative approach based on sound information and real solutions.

Bob Engelbrecht is the manager, operator and owner of NorthStar Trekking.

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