Air Tours of Glacier National Park To End in 2029

by Lauren Boisvert
(Image Credit: Barry Marty/Getty Images)

On Sept. 23, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) discussed Glacier National Park’s air tour management plan for the upcoming years. Now, those wishing to see Glacier National Park by air have until 2029 to do so. But, there are actually good reasons not to, according to the Air Tour Management Plan.

There are currently three commercial air tour operators that have permits to fly in Glacier National Park: Homestead Helicopters Inc., Minuteman Aviation Inc., and Red Eagle Aviation Inc. According to the management plan, they must provide 144 tours per year through a defined route until Dec. 31, 2029. The new plan comes from a desire to protect environmental and cultural resources, tribal lands, wildlife and wilderness, and visitor experience.

The new parameters of the plan will go into effect within 90 days. They apply to any commercial air tours up to one-half mile of the park’s boundaries. The parameters are made to include both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

New Air Tour Plan Parameters for Companies in Glacier National Park

  • The tours will begin and end in the area around West Glacier
  • Companies are restricted to three tours per day along the designated route. Only one commercial tour may be over the park at any one time
  • The route and specific altitudes must be closely followed
  • The route must be flown clockwise and transitions between altitudes made slowly to minimize noise over the park.
  • Helicopters are to fly no lower than 2,600 feet, and fixed-wing aircraft will fly no lower than 3,100 feet above ground level; fixed-wing aircraft are to fly 500 feet above helicopters
  • These altitude parameters can be disregarded during takeoff and landing, during an emergency, when avoiding unsafe conditions or wildlife, or when otherwise specified
  • Tours may be conducted one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset
  • Hovering or circling over the park is prohibited

What the Air Tour Management Plan Means for Visitor Experience and Wildlife

Pete Webster, the park’s deputy superintendent, stated that “The purpose of the air tour plan is to ensure that park resource values in Glacier National Park … are protected.”

The big issue with commercial air tours is the noise they create in the park. The noise from planes and helicopters can disrupt wildlife and visitor experiences. The Nationa Park Service reports they have received over 1,000 complaints about air tours over the years. According to these complaints, the aircraft disrupt those looking for solitude or natural sounds and wildlife. Additionally, they frustrate those searching for views without aircraft. Most notably, phasing out the air tours will protect the visitor experience.

In addition, phasing out the tours protects wildlife and natural environments, especially the grizzly bear habitat. As stated in the final Air Tour Management Plan from the NPS and the FAA, the constant low altitude of helicopters could have long-term effects on grizzly bear behavior and habitat. The Montana Fish and Wildlife suggested that “helicopter use in core habitat likely results in more pronounced disturbance reaction” for grizzly bears.

Additionally, the prohibition of hovering and circling is to prevent disturbances to wildlife that are noise-sensitive. This includes “ungulates, avian species, the Federally-listed Canada lynx and grizzly bear, as well as wolverine,” according to the ATMP.

Overall, these new parameters may have changed your mind about seeing Glacier by air. If that’s the case, here are some other things to do in the park instead.