National Parks Air Tour Fees:

Effective Verification and Enforcement Are Needed to Improve Compliance

GAO-06-468: Published: May 11, 2006. Publicly Released: May 11, 2006.

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The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (the fees legislation) required the National Park Service to begin collecting fees from operators that conduct air tours over national park units that meet certain criteria. Currently, only Grand Canyon, Haleakala, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks meet the criteria to charge air tour fees. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in cooperation with the Park Service, also regulates air tours over park units pursuant to the National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 and the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. GAO was asked to (1) assess the Park Service's collection of air tour fees and (2) identify what factors, if any, hinder the collection of air tour fees. GAO is also providing information on the possible expansion of air tour fees to additional park units.

Relying largely on voluntary compliance, the Park Service has collected some, but not all, fees from air tour operators at Grand Canyon, Haleakala, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks. After passage of the fees legislation, these three park units instituted air tour fees in 1994 by requesting operators to voluntarily report their air tours and pay appropriate fees monthly. Since then, the Park Service has collected about $19 million at the three park units (in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars). However, voluntary compliance with the air tour fee requirement has been inconsistent, and several operators are not paying the required fees. For example, GAO found that 13 of the 21 operators conducting air tours over Grand Canyon underpaid their air tour fees for calendar years 2000 through 2003 by more than $1.5 million. The Park Service's ability to collect air tour fees is hindered by several factors. The Park Service cannot verify air tour activity over the three park units. Air tour operators are not required to record and report to either the Park Service or FAA their number of air tours over park units, except for Grand Canyon. Operators at Grand Canyon are required to report their air tours only to FAA. Consequently, the Park Service relies on operators to voluntarily report their air tours and pay the required fees. A GAO January 2006 report recommended that FAA take steps to require operators to report to both agencies their air tours over park units under the 2000 air tour act, including Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes. The Park Service cannot effectively enforce compliance due to the lack of air tour data. The Park Service has limited ability to enforce compliance because it does not have jurisdiction over airspace and lacks sufficient air tour data. Conversely, FAA is not required to assist with collecting, or enforcing the collection of, air tour fees. As a result, both Park Service and FAA officials told GAO, the agencies have little or no ability to take enforcement action against noncompliant operators. Different geographic applicability of two laws complicates efforts to collect air tour fees. The fees legislation and the 2000 air tour act have different geographic applicability, which has complicated the Park Service's collection efforts. Air tour fees are currently charged at only 3 of the 86 park units with air tours, based on the criteria established in the fees legislation. Expanding air tour fees to other park units could generate additional funding for the Park Service, but such an expansion would require a legislative change and should be balanced against potential impacts on air tour operators. Legislation could explicitly provide that the additional funding may be used to develop the air tour management plans required by the 2000 air tour act. Regarding the potential impacts on air tour operators, the 2000 air tour act directed FAA to prepare a report to Congress on this subject by October 2000. FAA has drafted the report but has not submitted it to Congress.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While legislation in pending in the 111th Congress that would address a number of issues related to air tour over the national parks, it does not appear that the legislation specifically addresses the issue raised in this matter for congressional consideration.

    Matter: To enhance the collection of air tour fees, Congress may wish to consider amending the fees legislation or the Air Tour Management Act to reconcile the geographic applicability of the two laws.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our May 2006 report, we reported that the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 required the National Park Service to begin collecting fees from operators that conduct air tours over national park units that meet certain criteria. We found that, based on air tour operators' voluntary compliance, the Park Service had collected some, but not all, fees from air tour operators at Grand Canyon and two other national parks. For example, we found that 13 of the 21 operators conducting air tours over Grand Canyon underpaid their air tour fees for calendar years 2000 through 2003 by more than $1.5 million. We also found that the Park Service's ability to collect air tour fees was hindered by several factors, including that the Park Service could not verify air tour activity at Grand Canyon because the operators were required to report their air tours to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but not to the Park Service. As a result, we recommended that FAA establish a procedure for operators at Grand Canyon to report their air tour activity simultaneously to the Park Service and FAA, or to ensure that FAA forwards the information to the Park Service, in order to improve compliance with air tour fee payments. Subsequently, both FAA and Park Service officials told us that FAA has regularly forwarded to the Park Service the air tour information that FAA receives from operators on a quarterly basis, starting with information for the second quarter of calendar year 2006.

    Recommendation: In order to improve compliance with air tour fee payments and to help understand the impacts of such fees on air tour operators' businesses, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to establish a procedure for air tour operators at Grand Canyon National Park to report their air tour information simultaneously to the Park Service and FAA, or ensure that the air tour information is forwarded to the Park Service once it is reported to FAA by air tour operators.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our May 2006 report, we reported that the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prepare a report to Congress by October 2000 on the potential impacts of expanding air tours fees on air tour operators. Air tours fees are charged at only 3 of the 86 park units with air tours. We found that while FAA had prepared the report in January 2001, it had not been approved for submission to Congress. As a result, we recommended that FAA report to Congress on the effects that air tour fees are likely to have on air tour operators as required by the act. Since the original report had become outdated, officials with FAA's Office of Aviation Policy and Plans briefed Senator McCain's office, a primary sponsor of the act, in July 2007 on the contents of the report. According to an FAA official, the senator's office was satisfied with this outcome.

    Recommendation: In order to improve compliance with air tour fee payments and to help understand the impacts of such fees on air tour operators' businesses, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to report to Congress on the effects that air tour fees are likely to have on air tour operators as required by the Air Tour Management Act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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