Frequent fliers fleece Grand Canyon

  One-third of the air-tour operators in Grand Canyon National Park are breaking the law by not paying a required $25 per flight. According to data compiled by the Sierra Club, some companies such as Las Vegas Airlines and Air Nevada allegedly fail to report their business to the Park Service, and two operators openly refuse to pay the fee. Meanwhile, air tours have boomed, enabling operators to make millions of dollars off the canyon's spectacular views as their planes and helicopters buzz and roar above the park.

"Every other park visitor, including hikers, rafters, school groups and elderhostel tours, pays their fair share," says Julie Gale from the Grand Canyon Trust. "We have a right to expect that a multimillion-dollar industry would do the same."

Although the Park Service has collected air-tour records for the past three years, the agency says there's no way to enforce the 1993 law. The park relies on the industry to pay the fee voluntarily, and the Park Service, Federal Aviation Administration and Grand Canyon Airport all have different records. ranging from 49,000 to 95,000 flights for a 12-month period ending June 1996.

That means the fee-dodgers may have unwittingly hurt their business, says Maureen Oltrogee, public affairs officer for the park. A draft rule proposed by the Park Service and the FAA includes a cap on future flights at 1995-96 reported numbers, and they may be half what were actually flown. The FAA has extended its comment period on the proposed cap until Nov. 14 (HCN, 9/16/96).

*Katie Fesus

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