City of East Hampton May Be "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" in Challenging the Airport Noise and Capacity Act

The Town of East Hampton, Long Island has brought a challenge at the United States Supreme Court, seeking to reverse the November 4, 2016 decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which invalidated East Hampton’s local ordinance prohibiting flights from East Hampton Town Airport between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. and “noisy” aircraft flights between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.  The Second Circuit decision was predicated on East Hampton’s purported failure to comply with 49 U.S.C. 47524(c), which limits the grounds upon which local operational restrictions may be imposed to those in which “the restriction has been agreed to by the airport proprietor and all airport operators or has been submitted to and approved by the Secretary of Transportation . . .”  In addition, Section 47524(d) contains six express exemptions from the limitations, none of which apparently applies to East Hampton. 

While East Hampton’s intent is noble, its cause is weak.  
 

Although its spokesman, Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, asserts that “with the stroke of a pen, the Appeals Court decision has federalized our airport and stripped us – and the thousands of similarly situated airports – of the ability to exert local control,” in fact, the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”), containing those prohibitions did that long ago.  ANCA was originally enacted in 1990 for the express purpose of protecting against “uncoordinated and inconsistent restrictions on aviation that could impede the national air transportation system.”  49 U.S.C. § 47521(2).  It was not, therefore, the Second Circuit, but rather the United States Congress, that preempted local control of airport noise.  

East Hampton, in the long run, therefore, will have only two options for the imposition of the desired curfew.  The first, the agreement with all aircraft operators has apparently already been unsuccessful. The second is the submission of an application to the Secretary of Transportation, the format for which is set forth in 14 C.F.R. Part 161.  That option is both financially onerous and time consuming.  More ominous, no such Part 161 submission has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) in the 25 years that the regulation has existed.  
 
In short, the Supreme Court is unlikely to insert itself between the Congress and the local airport proprietor, especially where, as here, the rules are explicitly set forth in ANCA, and the only debate is over the facts (e.g., whether airport operators were sufficiently informed of the East Hampton Airport’s intent, and, in fact, concurred with it).  East Hampton would, therefore, be better served to devote its time and resources to the uphill battle of developing a Part 161 application, and making it defensible enough to be first of its kind in 25 years approved by the FAA.  
 

FAA Denies LAX Request for Approval of Longtime, "Over-Ocean," Noise Mitigation Measure

In an unexpected turn of events, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has denied an application by Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”), under 14 C.F.R. Part 161 (“Part 161”), for approval of the nighttime noise mitigation procedure that requires both arrivals and departures to the west and over the Pacific Ocean from 12:00 midnight to 6:00 a.m. (“Application”).  The FAA’s decision was unexpected because the procedure has been in effect on an informal basis for almost 15 years.  LAWA sought FAA approval, pursuant to the requirements of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”) which requires, among other things, that any restriction on noise or access be approved by FAA or, in the alternative, all the airlines operating at the airport.  In addition, the filing of the Application was required by LAWA’s 2006 settlement with surrounding communities Inglewood, Culver City, El Segundo and the environmental group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.  

FAA’s denial was based on the Application’s purported noncompliance with three of the six conditions required by ANCA for approval of restrictions on Stage 3, “quieter” aircraft.  These include: (1) the restriction be reasonable, nonarbitrary, and nondiscriminatory; (2) the restriction not create an undue burden on interstate or foreign commerce; (3) the restriction not be inconsistent with maintaining the safe and efficient use of the navigable airspace; (4) the restriction not be in conflict with a law or regulation of the United States; (5) an adequate opportunity be provided for public comment on the restriction; and (6) the restriction not create an undue burden on the national aviation system.  49 U.S.C. § 47524.  
 
FAA’s decision comports with what appears to be its general policy of denying exemptions from ANCA’s stringent restrictions.  

With respect to Condition No. 1, FAA found that LAWA had arbitrarily defined the LAX noise problem as one of night noise associated with departures to the east that do not conform to over-ocean procedures.  FAA found that LAWA’s proposed ban on such departures would benefit less than 0.2% of the population within the defined noise impact area, and, thus, would not contribute to a meaningful solution of LAX’s noise problem, although even that small percentage translates into a substantial number of citizens residing within the dense urban areas to the east of LAX.  

In addition, FAA paid substantial attention to Condition No. 2, and found that LAWA’s required cost/benefit analysis does not demonstrate that the estimated potential benefits of the proposed procedure outweigh the regulatory costs of: (1) the 1.9 million annual lost profits due to compensation paid to passengers required to be offloaded as a result of the restriction; (2) delay of crews from “delayed” aircraft; and (3) the cost of Auxiliary Power Unit operation during offloading “delay.”  
 
Finally, with respect to Condition No. 4, FAA found that LAWA had failed to demonstrate that the proposed restriction does not conflict with existing federal statutes and regulations where the Application does not take into account the effect on the authority of pilots to judge safe operations.  In other words, the FAA views the proposed restriction as a usurpation of pilot discretion.  
 
FAA’s determination to deny any application for a restriction under Part 161 is evidenced by the history of the statute and its implementing regulations under which, in the almost 25 years since ANCA’s passage, and the promulgation of 14 C.F.R. Part 161 implementing ANCA’s provisions, not a single exemption has been granted.  What is unexpected in this case is FAA’s reluctance to sanction an existing procedure, of long duration, and of already proven benefit to affected communities such as Inglewood, located immediately to the east.  The purpose of Part 161, and the integrity of FAA’s interpretation of it, must apparently await another opportunity for resolution.  
 

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.
 

Since, and partially as a result of, the 1986 settlement and the restrictions it contained, the United States Congress enacted the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521-45733 (“ANCA”).  While ANCA clearly expressed the intent of Congress to preempt the imposition of local airport noise restrictions (“noise policy must be carried out at the national level,” 49 U.S.C. § 47521(3)), it provides two avenues to circumvent that comprehensive preemption.  First, ANCA provides seven express exceptions under which the prohibition on local enactment of airport noise restrictions does not apply.  49 U.S.C. § 47524(d).  The extension of the JWA noise restrictions qualifies under 49 U.S.C. § 47524(d)(4), as “a subsequent amendment to an airport noise or access agreement or restriction in effect on November 5, 1990, that does not reduce or limit aircraft operations or affect aircraft safety.”   

However, even where an existing or planned local restriction does not fit neatly into any one of the specific categories of exception, ANCA provides for a process whereby a proposed restriction may either: (a) be agreed to by the airport proprietor and all aircraft operators (i.e., airlines); or (b) may be submitted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), for approval.  49 U.S.C. § 47524(c).  
 
The standards of review specified in the statute for application by the Secretary are admittedly both vague and draconian.  See, e.g., 49 U.S.C. § 47524(c)(2)(B) [“the restriction does not create an unreasonable burden on interstate or foreign commerce”].  Nevertheless, in some rare instances, such as Los Angeles International Airport’s nighttime over-ocean arrival and departure procedures, which is a local restriction long in effect, and, because of fewer night operations, not uniquely burdensome, the restriction may be able to meet ANCA’s difficult standard.  
 
In short, the currently required process under ANCA, and its implementing regulation, 14 C.F.R. Part 161, for approval of airport noise and access restrictions may not be a guarantee of success, but it is a dramatic illustration of the ancient adage, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
 

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.
 

First, the parties continue to debate the factual issue of whether Santa Monica’s contractual relationship with the federal government extends only to the year 2015, or as far out as 2023.  The FAA’s reliance on the latter date arises from the fact that Santa Monica took its final federal grant in 2003, and its contract with the federal government is presumed to extend for the “useful life” of the facilities purchased with the most recent grant, or 20 years.  See, e.g., FAA Order 5190.6B, Chapter 4, §§ 4.6.h(1) and (2).  There is also the issue of real property purchased for the airport with federal funds.  In the case of Santa Monica Airport, the then existing Works Progress Administration (“WPA”) and Civil Aeronautics Authority (“CAA”) used eminent domain to acquire additional land in order to replace two runways with a modern 5,000 foot long runway.  As that section was purchased with federal funds, the obligation to keep that portion of the property, at least, in aviation use arguably remains in perpetuity.  Id. at § 4.6.h(2). 

Finally, there is the legal issue of whether the 5th Amendment’s “takings” clause applies to make whole a City like Santa Monica.  The 5th Amendment specifically states: “. . . nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  [Emphasis added.]

Therefore, there may be a strong argument that the 5th Amendment does not apply where one public entity is alleged to have “taken” the property of another public entity without paying for it. 

For all those reasons, and others, not the least of which is the preemptive authority of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution which militates against the closure of aviation resources, especially where options are as severely constrained as they are in the Los Angeles region, it is doubtful that Santa Monica will prevail in closing its airport.  A more fruitful approach might be an application to the FAA under 14 C.F.R. Part 161 for mitigation measures that can relieve the surrounding population to some extent of the impacts of noise and pollution which were so instrumental in precipitating the lawsuit requesting closure in the first instance.