Senate Version of Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Preempts Local Drone Regulations

On March 17, 2016, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate approved amendments to the most recent funding legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, that, among other things, appear to preempt to preempt local and state efforts to regulate the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”).  

Federal preemption is the displacement of state and local laws which seek to govern some aspect of a responsibility that Congress views as assigned by the Constitution exclusively to the federal government.  Preemption by statute is not uncommon in legislation dealing with transportation, and its relationship to interstate commerce.  For example, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 49 U.S.C. § 41713, specifically “preempts” local attempts to control “prices, routes and service” of commercial air carriers by local operators or jurisdictions.  Similarly, the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”) preempts local efforts to establish airport noise or access restrictions.  The Senate’s current amendments, however, appear, at the same time, broader in scope, and more constrained by exceptions than previous legislative efforts.  They also hit closer to home for the average American concerned about the impact on daily life of the proliferation of UAS for all uses, including, but not limited to, the delivery of packages.  
 
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Privatization of the United States Air Traffic Control System Hits Roadblock in the U.S. Senate

Less than a month ago, it seemed clear that privatization was the wave of the future for the United States Air Traffic Control System (“ATC System”).  On February 19, 2016, the United States House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (“H.R. 4441” or “FAA Reauthorization Act”), the centerpiece of which was the establishment of an independent, nonprofit, private corporation to modernize the U.S. ATC System and provide ongoing ATC services.  The benefits of such “privatization” were seen to include less expense, less backlog in the implementation of air traffic control revisions, in essence, greater efficiency in the development, implementation, and long-term operation of the ATC System.  Central questions still remain, however, concerning the synergy of a private corporation’s management of the ATC System with the overarching statutory regime by which it is currently governed.  

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City of Burbank Attempts to Strike Deal with FAA for Curfew at Burbank Airport

In what looks like a swap of increased capacity for reduced hours of operation, brokered by Representative Adam Schiff, the City of Burbank has offered the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) a 14 gate replacement terminal at Bob Hope Airport (“Airport”) in return for which the FAA is being asked to approve a mandatory nighttime curfew from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.  

What makes this potential deal especially unusual is that in the years since the passage of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. §§ 47521-47534 (“ANCA”), the FAA has never agreed to the enactment of a limitation on hours of operation at any airport.  It is true that some airports which had preexisting limitations on hours of operation, such as John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, were allowed to retain those limitations as exceptions to the constraints of ANCA.  See 49 U.S.C. § 47524(d).  However, as recently as 2009, the FAA maintained its standard position that a mandatory curfew was not reasonable and would “create an undue burden on interstate commerce.”  However, under ANCA, § 47524(c), the FAA has the power to approve a restriction that might otherwise be regarded as violative of the Airport’s contractual obligations to the FAA.  See, e.g., City of Naples Airport Authority v. FAA, 409 F.3d 431 (2005).  Thus, given the quid pro quo of a new 14 gate passenger terminal to enhance passenger access as well aircraft mobility; and the already existing voluntary curfew of the same scope; it is not inconceivable that the FAA may take the hitherto unprecedented step of allowing a mandatory curfew, where none had previously been permitted.  
 
This negotiated outcome would sidestep the failure of Congressman’s Schiff’s efforts to enact a curfew at the federal level which effort made it to the floor of the House of Representatives in 2014 only to be rejected by a margin of four votes.  In the final analysis, the FAA’s willingness even to discuss a curfew may signal a reversal in attitude which could serve the interests of airport impacted communities throughout the nation. 

Los Angeles City Council at Long Last Agrees to Transfer Ontario International Airport to the City of Ontario and Ontario International Airport Authority

In an anticipated, but no less surprising move, the City Council of the City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”) agreed to transfer Ontario International Airport (“ONT”), currently owned and operated by Los Angeles, to the Ontario International Airport Authority (“OIAA”) and its members which include the City of Ontario (“Ontario”).  The transfer occurs in settlement of a currently pending lawsuit in the Riverside County Superior Court in which Ontario, the OIAA, and other parties challenged the legal right of Los Angeles to ownership and operation of ONT.  

 
The major provisions of the Settlement Agreement include the following:
 
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Airlines Will Be Affected by New Federal Ozone Standards

On October 1, 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) adopted stricter regulation on ozone emissions that will fall heavily on California, and most particularly on the transportation sector, including airlines.  The new standard strengthens limits on ground level ozone to 70 parts per billion (“PPB”), down from 75 PPB adopted in 2008.  The EPA’s action arises from the mandate of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), from which the EPA derives its regulatory powers, 42 U.S.C. § 7409(a)(1), and which requires that pollution levels be set so as to protect public health with an “adequate margin of safety.  42 U.S.C. § 7409(b).  

The change has inspired significant controversy throughout the country, but most particularly in Southern California which purportedly has the nation’s worst air quality and has already failed to meet previous ozone standards.  The issues arise out of the likelihood that the new standards will require steep emissions cuts falling most heavily on the transportation sector including trains, trucks, ships and, not least, aircraft.  
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Culver City and Inglewood Weigh in on SoCal Metroplex Project

On September 8 and October 8, 2015, the Cities of Culver City and Inglewood, California, filed original and supplemental comments, respectively, with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) concerning the adequacy of its Draft Environmental Assessment (“DEA”) for the Southern California Metroplex (“SoCal Metroplex”) Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (“OAPM”) (“Project”).  The OAPM is one in a long line of airspace redesigns being implemented by FAA throughout the nation, for the purpose of narrowing the flight paths of approach and departure procedures around airports to facilitate use of satellite, rather than ground based, navigation, and thereby save fuel for the airlines.  The critical problem, as set forth in the attached comments, is that FAA failed to fully evaluate the noise, air quality and other impacts of these changes on communities surrounding airports.  

There is no set date, as yet, for the issuance of a Final Environmental Assessment, responding to the comments made on the DEA.  When that occurs, comments by interested parties are both important informationally and necessary in the event of further legal challenge.  

FAA Administrator Announces New "Compliance Philosophy" for the Agency

In a somewhat ambiguous announcement, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), Michael Huerta, announced a “new” safety philosophy for the FAA.  Articulated in a speech last week to the Flight Safety Foundation in Washington, D.C., that “new” philosophy purportedly “challenges the status quo” by focusing on prevention, i.e., “finding problems in the national airspace system before they result in an incident or accident.”  Where problems do occur, the FAA foresees “using tools like training or documented improvements to procedures to ensure compliance.”  

Those would be noble goals if the public were not under the current impression that the FAA’s primary mandate of promoting safety of air transportation were not already being carried out with a primary emphasis on prevention.  What is, perhaps, more surprising is that the “new” philosophy is meant not merely to prevent accidents, but also to “prevent” operators (read “airlines”) from “hiding inadvertent mistakes because they are afraid of punishment.”  
 
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NTSB Faults FAA in Private Spacecraft Investigation

In a strange twist on the normal relationship between federal regulatory agencies, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has found the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) a primary culprit in the October 31, 2014 disastrous test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, in which one of the two pilots was killed, and debris was spread over a 33 mile area in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles.  

 
The issue appears to be the grant of a waiver by FAA from the existing rules governing safety of interplanetary vehicles, despite FAA’s own safety consultant’s warning that Virgin Galactic was violating those rules.  The claim is that, while Congress did not delegate to FAA the authority to implement regulations as stringent as those applicable to commercial aircraft, FAA managers specifically ignored the repeated advice of safety engineers that Virgin Galactic had not fully complied with the regulations that do exist.  Specifically, FAA safety personnel claim that FAA managers based their decision to grant the waiver on the remoteness of the Town of Mojave where the aircraft’s launch company, Scaled, is based, and on the surrounding area where the company planned its test flights.  
 
In the end, the NTSB found that, although the co-pilot had erred by prematurely unlocking the rocketship’s movable tail, the FAA and the launch company bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility.  On the one hand, the launch company had failed to ascertain that a single error by an operator could lead to the ship’s destruction.  On the other hand, the FAA, acceding to pressure to approve the permit quickly, had failed to ensure that the company took this lack of redundancy into account.  Exacerbating the issue is the fact that SpaceShipTwo is one of three commercial rockets to crash in the span of eight months.  
 
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Congress Seeks to End Run Federal Aviation Administration on Drone Rules

Apparently impatient with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) slow progress in developing rules governing the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAV” or “drones”), Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced in Congress legislation to expedite implementation of rules governing the commercial operation of drones.  

Supported by a host of interest groups, ranging from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International to the National Association of Broadcasters and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the stated purpose of the “Commercial UAS Modernization Act,” S.1314 (“Act”) is to amend the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Pub. L. 112-95), to create an interim rule providing basic guidelines for commercial use and testing of small UAS during the period within which FAA finalizes rules governing the operation of commercial UAS.  The Bill allows any person to “operate a small unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes without an airworthiness certificate within the United States, subject to the requirements under subsection (b) and the operating restrictions under subsection (c) during the period beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act and ending on the effective date of a final rule based on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (80 Fed. Reg. 9544, February 23, 2015).” The Bill’s general requirements include: (1) liability insurance; (2) registration/certification under section 3(a) of the Act; and (3) the operator’s passing of an “aeronautical knowledge test,” Act, subsection (b)(3)(A), as prescribed by FAA in its February 2015 notice.  
 
The permission granted under the proposed legislation is not without limits, however.  
 
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FAA Requires New Integrated Model for Noise and Air Quality Impact Analysis

In a marked change in longtime Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) policy regarding analysis of noise and air quality impacts from FAA initiated, directed or funded projects, FAA has substituted a single new model for the long mandated Integrated Noise Model (“INM”) and Emissions and Dispersion Modeling System (“EDMS”).  Beginning May 29, 2015, FAA policy “requires” the use of the Aviation Environmental Design Tool version 2b (“AEDT 2b”), which integrates analysis of aircraft noise, air pollutant emissions, and fuel burn.  These impacts, according to FAA are “interdependent and occur simultaneously throughout all phases of flight.”  80 Fed.Reg. 27853.  

 
The FAA policy provides for differential displacement of existing analytic models.  For air traffic and airspace procedural changes, AEDT 2b replaces AEDT 2a, already in use.  For other, ground based projects, AEDT 2b replaces both the INM, for analyzing aircraft noise, and EDMS for developing emissions inventories and modeling emissions dispersion.  The change was presaged by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta who announced in April that FAA was undertaking an “ambitious project” to revamp its approach to measuring noise.  The “ambitious project” was apparently inspired by the vocal objections to the results of the analysis using current methodologies, voiced by citizens of locals that have experienced the effects of FAA’s current, nationwide reorganization of airspace around major airports to institute procedures based on Performance Based Navigation (“PBN”).  
 
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