Decision in Pirker Case Invokes Specter of Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences.  The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation. 

Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1.  He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.”  On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations.  Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument. 
 

Continue Reading...

FAA Pushes Back Against Advocates of Unregulated Drone Operations

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft.  It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks. 

First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007).  That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.”  49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3).  That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.” 

FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority. 
 

Continue Reading...

Sustainable Airport Policies for Car Sharing and Ride Sharing Companies

“Disruption” has become the buzzword of the decade for technology startups.  Entrepreneurs take aim at existing markets every day with ideas designed to uproot and redefine their industries.  But some of the most innovative disrupters are having trouble bringing their ideas to a place where disruption is generally unwelcome: the airport.

Car sharing services such as Zipcar, Car2Go, and Getaround and ride sharing services such as UberX, Lyft, and Zimride are changing the game in ground transportation.  By using smartphone apps to connect drivers who have open seats in their vehicles with passengers who need rides, the ride sharing movement is reducing traffic and fuel usage.  Similarly, by planting a network of available cars throughout a city and allowing consumers to access the vehicles for a fee, car sharing makes it more practical for consumers to forego vehicle ownership altogether.  In 2014 alone, these companies have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital financing.  Many consumers prefer these services to taxi cabs or other traditional methods of ground transportation because they are more convenient, affordable, and in some cases more environmentally friendly.  As with taxi cabs, airports are natural hubs of activity for car sharing and ride sharing services.

Notwithstanding the rising tidal wave of demand, most airports have yet to develop a workable approach to the unique legal and logistical challenges presented by car sharing and ride sharing services.  Instead, airports are prohibiting these companies from picking up or dropping off passengers at their terminals.  At a recent conference of in-house airport lawyers, several representatives from some of North America’s largest aviation hubs expressed serious concerns about these services.  One attendee suggested setting up “stings” by using the popular ride sharing apps to order rides from the airport and arresting the drivers for lack of taxi cab certification when they arrive.

However, non-airport regulators are beginning to appreciate that ride sharing services are not cab companies and should not be subject to the same regulations.  In September of 2013, California became the first state to provide a regulatory framework for Transportation Network Companies (“TNCs”), defined by the California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) as any organization that “provides prearranged transportation services for compensation using an online-enabled application (app) or platform to connect passengers with drivers using their personal vehicles.”  (See CPUC Decision 13-09-045.)  The Illinois House of Representatives followed suit last week when it passed HB 4075, which seeks to implement a set of regulations specific to ride sharing services.

With mounting political and consumer support for car sharing and ride sharing, airports are under increased pressure to adopt policies regulating these services instead of prohibiting them.  Developing practical, sustainable policies that address issues such as airport congestion, service monitoring, and revenue sharing may prove to be a more profitable and efficient solution than denying airport access to car sharing and ride sharing companies.
 

Continue Reading...

Appellate Court Grants Wide Discretion to Newhall Land and Farming Project Proponents in the Determination of the Significance of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Under CEQA

The California Court of Appeal last week reversed a lower court decision that would have indefinitely delayed the development by Newhall Land and Farming Company of 21,308 residential units, 629 acres of mixed use development, 67 acres of commercial use, 249 acres of business park, and 1,014 acres of open space in northwestern Los Angeles County over the next 25-30 years (“Project”).  The lower court’s decision had originally granted the Petition for Writ of Mandate brought by, among others, the Center for Biological Diversity (“Respondents”), challenging, among other actions by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“DFW”) (“Appellant”), the revised Joint Federal/State Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (“EIS/EIR”) for the Project.

While the Appellate Court’s 112 page decision addressed numerous causes of action brought by Respondents in the trial court, one of the most unique and far reaching was its disposition of Respondents’ claim that the EIS/EIR’s baseline for assessing the cumulative impacts of the Project’s Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions is a procedural issue properly evaluated under the “failure to proceed in a manner required by law” standard, applicable to procedural actions, and that, employing the correct standard, the EIS/EIR’s analysis was predicated on an illusory baseline.  In a decision that is likely to be adopted in the adjudication of other California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) actions challenging the evolving state and federal GHG standards, the Appellate Court firmly disagreed. 
 

Continue Reading...

EPA Extends Public Comment Period for "Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units"

On March 6, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced the 60-day extension of the comment period for the January 8, 2014 proposed “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units” and the February 26, 2014 notice of data availability soliciting comments on the provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Continue Reading...

High Court Goes a Second Round with Environmental Protection Agency Over Greenhouse Gas Emission Regulations

On Monday, February 24, the United States Supreme Court watched the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), industry groups and sympathetic states take the ring over what the challengers call a “brazen power grab” by the Obama Administration and its environmental regulators, aimed at limited carbon emissions from new stationary sources such as power plants and factories. 

This is not the first time the same parties have squared off over greenhouse gas (“GHG”) regulation.  In 2008, the Obama Administration initiated rules governing mobile sources, requiring new motor vehicles to demonstrate better fuel efficiency and, thus, reduce carbon emissions.  The High Court effectively upheld those rules by refusing to hear the challenges against them.  The Administration this week announced plans to expand mobile source regulation by enacting new limits on carbon emissions for trucks and buses.  EPA has hit a brick wall, however, with its expansion of regulation to stationary sources, concerning which the High Court will now be hearing oral argument on six different appeals.  The upcoming legal battle, like so many others over environmental regulation, is fraught with political overtones, as well as a variety of legal issues. 
 

Continue Reading...

D.C. Circuit Upholds FAA's "No Hazard" Determinations Regarding Electromagnetic Radiation from Nantucket Sound Wind Turbines

After protracted litigation challenging plans to build 130 wind turbines, each 440 feet tall, in a 25 square mile area of Nantucket Sound, the D.C. Circuit last month denied petitions for review of the Federal Aviation Administration's (“FAA”) determination that the turbines would pose no hazard to air navigation.

The petitioners, the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts and a non-profit group of pilots and others, challenged the no hazard determinations based on the FAA’s failure to analyze the safety risks posed by the project and to perform an environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 4332.  The D.C. Circuit had previously vacated a 2010 no hazard determination based on the FAA’s failure to consider potential adverse effects of the turbines on pilots operating under visual flight rules (“VFR”) and the potential that electromagnetic radiation from the turbines would interfere with radar systems in nearby air navigation facilities.

Noting the circumstances had changed after the FAA upgraded the radar and beacon at Otis Airfield, the circuit court’s January 22, 2014 opinion upheld the FAA’s 2012 no hazard determinations.  The court concluded that the FAA properly based its determinations on aeronautical studies conducted according to the FAA Handbook, Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters, FAA Order JO 7400.2J (February 9, 2012), of which Section 3 on identifying and evaluating aeronautical effect was applicable.  According to the court, the FAA could reasonably view its Handbook procedures implementing the Secretary of Transportation’s regulations as requiring a threshold finding before triggering the need for a more advanced “adverse effects” analysis under Handbook Section 6–3–3 which states that “[a] structure is considered to have an adverse effect if it first ... is found to have physical or electromagnetic radiation effect on the operation of air navigation facilities.”
 

Continue Reading...

Judge Blocks City of Santa Monica's Latest Effort to Close the Santa Monica Airport

Predictably, Judge John Walter of the Los Angeles Federal District Court summarily dismissed a lawsuit brought by the City of Santa Monica (“Santa Monica”) aimed at closing the Santa Monica Airport, based on, among other things, unconstitutional taking of property without just compensation.  The court’s decision was made on the procedural grounds that, among other things, the lawsuit was brought too late and in the wrong court.

First, the court found that Santa Monica had brought the suit after the applicable 12 year statute of limitations had expired.  28 U.S.C. § 2409(a)(g).  The court’s rationale was that Santa Monica knew as long ago as 1948 that the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) had a residual claim to the property arising from the Deed of Transfer of the federal government’s lease back to the City of Santa Monica.  That residual claim, therefore, required that Santa Monica’s suit be brought no later than the early 1960s. 

In addition, the court found that, even if a claim for unconstitutional taking could be sustained under the applicable statute of limitations, it was improperly brought in the District Court, as the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1) vests exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over monetary claims against the federal government exceeding $10,000 with the Court of Federal Claims.  Santa Monica does not, of course, dispute that the value of the airport property that it wishes to recover and use for other purposes exceeds $10,000. 

Although the court chose the procedural route in making its decision, there appear to be relevant substantive grounds as well.
 

Continue Reading...

El Paso County Seeks Control Over Colorado Springs Airport

In an exercise of regulatory zeal, El Paso County, Colorado (“County”) now requires that City owned Colorado Springs Airport (“Airport”) obtain a permit from the County for any changes in airport physical development or operations that might affect nearby property located in the County. 

Purportedly under the authority of the Colorado Areas and Activities of State Interest Act, § 24-65-101, et seq., the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) “has specific authority to consider and designate matters of state interest . . . and to adopt guidelines and regulations for administration of areas and activities of state interest. . .”  Pursuant to that purported authority, by Resolution No. 13-267, June 6, 2013, and recorded at Reception No. 213077196 of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, “the Board designated certain areas and activities of state interest” and established “a permit process for development in certain areas of state interest,” Resolution No. 13-530, Resolution Amending Guidelines and Regulations for Areas and Activities of State Interest of El Paso County, and designating additional matters of state interest.  December 17, 2013.  The new areas of state interest designated in the Resolution include: “site selection and expansion of airports,” Resolution, p. 3, § 1.  The County has interpreted the permit process to extend to “runway extension, noise and other impacts that might affect property owners . . .,” Gazette, January 17, 2014, quoting Mark Gebhart, Deputy Director of County Development Services Department. 

Therein lies the rub. 
 

Continue Reading...

California Legislators Successful in Obtaining Relief from Helicopter Noise

California Legislators Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of Burbank achieved the seemingly impossible in Congress’ January 14 passage of the $1.012 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, H.R. 3547 (“Appropriations Act”).  The Appropriations Act contains a provision, § 119D, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to achieve reductions in helicopter noise throughout the Los Angeles Basin by 2015.  That section specifies certain voluntary measures, which, if unsuccessful in achieving the desired reductions within one year, must give way to FAA regulations to achieve the stated purposes. 

Specifically, § 119D mandates that:

“The Secretary shall (1) evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles, and make adjustments to such routes if the adjustments would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks; (2) analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles County; (3) develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news gathering; (4) conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and to increase awareness of noise sensitive areas and events; (5) work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system; and (6) continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators:  Provided, That not later than one year after enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall begin a regulatory process related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the Secretary can demonstrate significant progress in undertaking the actions required under the previous proviso.”

Although a seeming triumph for noise impacted communities, the Appropriations Act is neither an unalloyed victory nor does it set a precedent for future legislative initiatives for the following reasons:
 

Continue Reading...