Helicopter Sightseeing at the Grand Canyon

Dan Sweet 2018 Spring

It’s called the Grand Canyon for a reason: it’s really big and it’s really beautiful.

One of the most visited national parks in the United States, the length and depth of this marvel are difficult to visualize from a single vantage point. It’s easy to understand why visitors are taking to the skies to experience this awe-inspiring natural wonder.

International Appeal

The city of Las Vegas is also a significant tourist attraction. Given their proximity to each other, it’s understandable why Las Vegas is a common starting point for tours of the Grand Canyon, particularly for international visitors.

“About 75 percent of our Grand Canyon guests are from outside of the United States,” says Bryan Kroten, vice president of marketing for Maverick Helicopters. “And about 75 percent of our customers for flights over the Las Vegas strip are from within the United States.”

Arlene Bordinhão, public relations manager at Sundance Helicopters, echoes these statistics. “Our most popular flights are to the Grand Canyon, followed by our city lights tour over the Las Vegas Strip.”

Depending on budget and schedule, there are several ways for international and domestic visitors to experience the Grand Canyon. The least expensive method typically takes the most time — driving or riding on a bus. Next, fixed-wing tour flights are an option for those who want to see the spectacular sights, but these do not allow visitors the opportunity to stop and experience the Grand Canyon on foot.

Several helicopter tour operators operate in and around the Grand Canyon from the Las Vegas area, and at least six of the companies are HAI members: 702 Helicopters, FLYNYON, Maverick Helicopters, Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, Sundance Helicopters, and Sunshine Helicopters (see contact information for each company on the opposite page). Some of the companies also have representatives on the HAI Helicopter Tour Operators Committee.

These companies offer tours into and above the canyon from Las Vegas; Boulder, Colorado; Henderson, Nevada; and Tusayan, Arizona (at the main South Rim entrance to the park), with a variety of lengths, added options, and price points available.

With such a variety of helicopter tour operations, each tour company markets to slightly different niches or customer bases, and Papillon, Maverick, and Sundance each market themselves extensively to international customers.

“We used to wait for the tourist to arrive in Las Vegas to sell our services,” says Maverick’s Kroten. “This was typically through rack cards at the airport and in hotels. Today’s travelers are booking their experiences before they ever leave home.”

Each of the “big three” tour companies report carrying between 225,000 and 300,000 passengers per year, marketing to their guests through the Internet and social media advertising, as well as working with international travel agents, travel groups, and associations. Many of the helicopter tour companies offer in-flight narration about the tour over headsets, and some offer the narration in multiple languages to better meet the needs of their customers.

A Historic Operation

One of the first companies to begin providing regular helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon was Papillon. In 1965, industry pioneer Elling Halvorson owned a construction company that was building a 13.5-mile-long water pipeline across the Grand Canyon. Halvorson had previously purchased a helicopter to provide access to hard-to-reach locations for construction work, and he again used his helicopter to deliver supplies and crews to the constantly moving construction site. Over time, his crews and guests recognized the advantage of seeing the canyon by helicopter and began requesting tours.

Today, Papillon offers tours of the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, Boulder City, and Tusayan. The company also holds the contract to provide helicopter services to the National Park Service (see story, p. 16). Papillon remains one of largest providers of tours in the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas region.

The Height of Luxury

In a market with so many tour options, each company works to distinguish themselves from the others. “Many of the companies pick their guests up from hotels,” explains Bordinhão. “Sundance picks up our guests in VIP-style stretch limousines so that the customer service experience quite literally begins at their door.”

“We don’t see ourselves as a tour company,” says Maverick’s Kroten. “We are a helicopter experience company. We don’t market to the discount crowd. We invest in our people, and we look for pilots with personality who can provide a better tour.”
Additionally, many of the helicopter tour companies have agreements in place with the Hualapai Tribe that allow their helicopters to land at the bottom of the canyon. Landing at sites a few hundred feet above the Colorado River, operators often provide guests with a champagne lunch before returning to Las Vegas.

“Our most popular tour is the Grand Celebration Tour,” says Marina Nicola, Papillon spokesperson. “It includes pick-up from area hotels, flying over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, and landing at the bottom of the canyon for a picnic before returning to base.”

Most Las Vegas–based helicopter tour companies offering tours of the Grand Canyon operate under FAA Part 135 guidelines. Many of these companies also offer personalized charter flights and may provide packages that can include wedding, birthday party, and combination packages that include ground-based tours as well.

“My favorite tour is our Grand Canyon Flight with Landing Tour that returns to Las Vegas right at sundown,” says Bordinhão. “You leave the city in the afternoon and fly out over Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam before you get to the canyon. After you finish your picnic lunch in the bottom of the canyon, the helicopter comes up out of the canyon just as the sun is starting to set. The tour route comes in on the north end of town and flies down the strip just as the lights are coming on. It’s spectacular!”

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