Pirker Reversed: NTSB Confirms FAA Has Jurisdiction Over Drones

Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations.  This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States. 

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
 
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FAA Loosens Regulation of Taxes on Aviation Fuel

On November 7, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published its “Final Policy Amendment” (“Amendment”) to its “Policy and Procedures Concerning the Use of Airport Revenue,” first published 15 years ago in the Federal Register at 64 Fed.Reg. 7696, February 16, 1999 (“Revenue Use Policy”).  The Amendment formally adopts FAA’s interpretation of the Federal requirements for use of revenue derived from taxes including sales taxes on aviation fuel imposed by both airport sponsors and governmental agencies, local and State, that are non-airport operators. 

In brief, the FAA concludes that “an airport operator or State government submitting an application under the Airport Improvement Program must provide assurance that revenues from State and local government taxes on aviation fuel will be used for certain aviation-related purposes.”  79 Fed.Reg. 66283.  Predictably, FAA received 25 substantive comments from a diverse group of interested parties, including airport operators, industry and nonprofit associations representing airports, air carriers, business aviation and airport service businesses, air carriers, state government agencies, and private citizens.  For example, in response to the airports’ and governments’ comments that airport sponsors would find it impossible to provide assurance that other governmental agencies would comply with the revenue use statutes for the life of the Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) grant, and that airports should not be required to agree to a condition compliance with which they have no control, FAA takes the position that Federal statute 49 U.S.C. §§ 47107(b) and 47133 already require this level of control from local proprietors.  This is because “[t]he grant assurances provided by airport sponsors include Grant Assurance 25, which provides, in relevant part: ‘All revenues generated by the airport and any local taxes on aviation fuel established after December 30, 1987, will be expended by it for the capital or operating costs of the airport; the local airport system; or other facilities which are owned and operated by the owner and operator of the airport. . .’” 79 Fed.Reg. 66284.  The FAA further concludes that airport sponsors often have influence on the taxation of aviation activities in their States and localities, and the FAA expects airport sponsors to use that influence to shape State and non-sponsor local taxation to conform to these Federal laws.  Id.  Moreover, FAA asserts its power to pursue enforcement action against non-sponsor entities for the purposes of limiting the use of aviation tax revenues under 49 U.S.C. §§ 46301, 47133 and 47111(f). 
 
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FAA Seeks Input from Governmental Entities Concerning Revised Air Traffic Routes Over Southern California

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has scheduled six “briefings” with governmental jurisdictions potentially impacted by the planned “Southern California Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (SoCal OAPM)” (“Project”).  The Project is expected to involve changes in aircraft flight paths and/or altitudes in areas surrounding Bob Hope (Burbank) Airport (BUR), Camarillo Airport (CMA), Gillespie Field (SEE), McClellan-Palomar Airport (Carlsbad) (CRQ), Montgomery Field (MYF), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Long Beach Airport (LGB), Point Magu Naval Air Station (NTD), North Island Naval Air Station (NZY), Ontario International Airport (ONT), Oxnard Airport (OXR), Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), San Diego International Airport (SAN), Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA), Brown Field Municipal Airport (SDM), Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO), John Wayne-Orange County Airport (SNA), Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport (TRM), Bermuda Dunes (UDD), Miramar Marine Corps Air Station (NKX) and Van Nuys Airport (VNY).   
 
These meetings are targeted at “key governmental officials/agencies” for the purpose of soliciting their views on the Environmental Assessment being prepared for the Project pursuant to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321.  The meetings will not be open to the public, although public meetings will be scheduled as well.  
 
It is important to note the regional scope of the planned airspace changes, and that they may redistribute noise, air quality, and other impacts over affected communities, thus implicating new populations, and simultaneously raising citizen ire in newly impacted communities.  It is therefore doubly important that governmental entities participate at the initiation of the process to ensure protection at its culmination.  
 
The governmental meetings are planned for the following locations and times:
 
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One code to rule them all: Dronecode

Paul Fraidenburgh’s article, “One code to rule them all: Dronecode,” appeared in the October 30, 2014 issue of Computerworld. The article is available here: http://www.computerworld.com/article/2841493/one-code-to-rule-them-all-dronecode.html

California Once Again Relinquishes Clean Air Act Enforcement Responsibility to the Federal Government

On October 24, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) published its final rule documenting the failure of the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) to submit a State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) revision containing measures to control California’s significant contribution to the nonattainment, or interference with maintenance, of the 2006 24 hour fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) in other states (“Interstate Transport SIP”).

More specifically, CARB’s failure to submit constitutes a violation of the general provisions of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), § 110(a)(2)(D)(i)(I) which requires that CARB submit a SIP revision to comply with the implementation, maintenance and enforcement provisions related to new or revised NAAQS within three years after the promulgation of the revised NAAQS; and that such plan contain adequate provisions to prohibit emissions from the state that will contribute significantly to nonattainment of the NAAQS (“Prong 1”), or interference with maintenance of the NAAQS (“Prong 2”), in any other state.  The final rule implementing the “Finding of Failure” transfers to EPA the obligation to promulgate a Federal Implementation Plan (“FIP”) to address the interstate transport requirements, within 24 months.
 
The issue has come to prominence as a result of the federal/state partnership that is the foundation of the CAA, see 42 U.S.C. § 7401(a)(3) and (4), giving EPA the power of approval over locally developed plans.  
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One Community Gets Relief from Aircraft Noise

In a rare showing of unanimity between airport operator and noise impacted community, on September 30, 2014 the Board of Supervisors of Orange County, California (“Board”) approved the extension, for an additional 15 years, of a long-standing set of noise restrictions on the operation of John Wayne Airport (“Airport”), of which the Board is also the operator.  Those restrictions include: (1) limitation on the number of the noisiest aircraft that can operate at the Airport; (2) limitation on the number of passengers that can use the Airport annually; (3) limitation on the number of aircraft loading bridges; and, perhaps most important, (4) limitation on the hours of aircraft operation (10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on Sundays).   

The restrictions were originally imposed in settlement of a lawsuit in 1986, between the Board, the neighboring City of Newport Beach and two environmental organizations, the Airport Working Group of Orange County, Inc. and Stop Polluting Our Newport.  The obvious question is whether similar restrictions might be achieved at other airports today. The not so obvious answer is that such a resolution is far more difficult now, but not impossible.
 
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Update on Developments in California Drone Law

The governor acted recently on the two bills involving use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs or “drones”) sitting on his desk, AB 1327 (Gorell) and AB 2306 (Chau). Both were discussed in some depth previously in this space. One bill was signed and the other vetoed. 

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FAA Grants Exemptions for Filming with Unmanned Aircraft Systems

In a landmark decision for the UAS (aka drone) industry and for the aviation industry as a whole, the Federal Aviation Administration announced today that it has granted 6 petitions for regulatory exemptions to operate unmanned aircraft systems for commercial filming operations.  The exemptions will allow the 6 petitioners to operate unmanned aircraft systems for closed set filming in both populated and unpopulated areas.  This highly anticipated decision paves the way not only for other filmmakers who wish to seek exemptions, but for potential future UAS operations in other industries including energy, agriculture, and telecommunications.

EPA Challenged to Issue Endangerment Finding and Rule Governing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aircraft Engines

Two environmental organizations have again taken the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to task for failing in its mandatory duty to determine whether greenhouse gases from aircraft engines cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare (“Endangerment Finding”), and, if so, to propose and adopt standards to limit those emissions.  See Clean Air Act (“CAA”), 42 U.S.C. § 7571(a)(2)(A) (also referred to as “Section 231”).  

Earth Justice and Friends of the Earth originally petitioned EPA in 2007, pursuant to CAA Section 231, which directs EPA to study air pollutants from aircraft “to determine (A) the extent to which such emissions affect air quality in air quality control regions throughout the United States, and (B) the technological feasibility of controlling such emissions.”  Section 231(a)(1).  Under subsections (a)(2) and (3), if EPA finds that emissions from aircraft and aircraft engines cause or contribute to “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” it “shall” propose and issue standards to control such emissions.  In 2010, EPA had still not responded to their 2007 Petition.  
 
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Water's For Fighting Over

California’s unprecedented drought provided the impetus in Sacramento in the closing weeks of the Legislature’s 2013-14 session for the passage of sweeping new regulations governing groundwater. The new rules, which Gov. Brown likely will sign, amount to a broad re-write of California’s existing groundwater law, the first substantial changes to the law in approximately one hundred years. And with the new rules comes significant new authority for a state agency, drawing upon potentially billions of dollars in new fees, to implement new groundwater management plans over the objections of local water authorities. 

Orange County’s groundwater management system, accomplished across numerous governmental jurisdictions and which has, so far, spared Orange County from the full effects of the drought, is held up as the model for the new state scheme. But the legislation goes well beyond anything done in Orange County. Major changes are coming in the way California regulates and allocates its ground water, and in the way our citizens pay for that water.

 

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