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.  
 

On the one hand, Title II, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Reform Act, § 2142, preempts states and other political subdivisions from enacting or enforcing “any law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law relating to . . . operation . . . of an unmanned aircraft system, including airspace, altitude, flight paths, equipment or technology, requirements, purposes of operation. . .”  Such a broad brush approach appears to entirely displace efforts at the state level, such as proposed SB 868 in California, authorizing the California Department of Transportation (“Caltrans”) “to adopt reasonable rules and regulations governing the conditions under which remote piloted aircraft may be operated for the purpose of protecting and ensuring the general public interest and safety. . .”  SB 868 is set for hearing April 5.  See also, AB 1724 that would require “a person or public or private entity that owns or operates an unmanned aircraft, to place specific identifying information or digitally stored identifying information on the unmanned aircraft.”  

On the other hand, § 2142(b) purports not to preempt state or local authority “to enforce federal, state or local laws relating to nuisance, voyeurism, harassment, reckless endangerment, wrongful death, personal injury, property damage, or other illegal acts arising from the use of unmanned aircraft systems” with the caveat that such local enforcement is only allowable “if such laws are not specifically related to the use of an unmanned aircraft system for those illegal acts.”  See also, § 2142(c) proposing to extend the immunity from preemption to “common law or statutory causes of action,” “if such laws are not specifically related to the use of unmanned aircraft systems.”  In other words, it would seem that operators of UAS must comply with existing laws relating to “nuisance, etc.,” but cannot be subject to new laws enacted specifically to govern the misdeeds of UAS.  
 
Finally, Congress seeks to compensate for this resulting regulatory void in other sections of the legislation, although the legislation is perhaps most notable for its exceptions from those regulatory attempts.  For example, in § 2101, Congress articulates a “privacy policy” which mandates that “the operation of any unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system shall be carried out in a manner that respects and protects personal privacy consistent with federal, state, and local law.”  At the same time, Congress put the responsibility for enforcement into the hands of the Federal Trade Commission, and its complex administrative procedures.  See § 2103.  
 
Further, in § 2015, the legislation establishes a convention of industry stakeholders to “facilitate the development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of unmanned aircraft systems and associated unmanned aircraft.”  However, the impact of that mandate is somewhat diluted by the fact that the FAA will have two years to develop the required identification standards during which time UAS can operate freely and unidentified.  In addition, § 2124 of the legislation establishes “consensus aircraft safety standards” whereby the FAA is mandated to “initiate a collaborative process to develop risk based, consensus industry airworthiness standards related to the safe integration of small unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”  This section of the FAA Reauthorization is to be codified at § 44803 of the Federal Aviation Act.  However, as with other sections of the legislation, FAA is relieved of its responsibility by a time lapse of one year to “establish a process for the approval of small unmanned aircraft systems make and models based upon safety standards developed under subsection (a).”  Finally, § 2126(b), amending into the Act § 44806, goes even further by granting to the FAA Administrator the power to use his or her discretion to exempt operators from the regulations, thus allowing certain persons to operate unmanned aircraft systems “(1) without an airman certificate; (2) without an airworthiness certificate for the associated unmanned aircraft; or (3) that are not registered with the Federal Aviation Administration.”
 
In short, the breadth of the legislation is too vast to be fully evaluated here.  Suffice it to say, that, given the exclusion of state and local authorities from the arena of drone regulation, and the long delays inherent in the rulemaking set forth in the proposed legislation, it will be some time before cognizable regulations exist to manage the rapidly growing UAS traffic in the United States.  
 

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.  

H.R. 4441 does not directly address the issues of: (1) whether the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) still have the final determination as to whether a change in the ATC System recommended by the corporation is “safe,” or will that determination also be left in private hands; (2) will the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), applicable to the analysis of the environmental impacts of projects sponsored by a federal agency, still apply to changes in the ATC System effectuated by a private corporation; and (3) will federal preemption of local airport noise and access restrictions, conclusively established in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”), apply to determinations by a private corporation?  While many questions are left to be clarified, H.R. 4441 does explicitly answer at least one – it provides that federal preemption of local regulation of airline “prices, routes, and service,” originally established in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 49 U.S.C. 41713(b), will remain in place.  Finally, judicial review under the Act is applied differentially, depending on whether a challenge is to FAA’s grant of a proposal, or its denial.  FAA’s approval of a proposal made by the corporation would be subject to the “abuse of discretion” standard, and the deference normally accorded to a governmental entity charged with the administration of a program established by Congress, which is difficult to overcome.  FAA’s denial of such a proposal, however, likely to be challenged only by the corporation, would not be subject to such deference, making the path to a reversal and ultimate approval of the corporation’s recommendations smoother.  

Apparently, the Senate Commerce Committee recognized H.R. 4441’s many unanswered questions, as did the full House of Representatives which has held up approval and caused the House to enact an extension of the FAA’s funding reauthorization to July 15, 2016.  The Senate reacted by passing its version of H.R. 4441 without the privatization provision.  This means that passage of the FAA Reauthorization must wait first until the issue is resolved internally in the House of Representatives.  Even if H.R. 4441 should emerge from the full House including the privatization provision, unless the full Senate should see fit to agree, a Conference Committee will be required and funding for the FAA could be delayed well past the current July 15, 2016 deadline.  
 

Town of East Hampton Explores Limits of Aircraft Noise Regulation

In an unprecedented action aimed at limiting or eliminating noisy helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from use of the East Hampton Airport, in East Hampton, Long Island, New York (“Airport”), on April 6, 2015, the East Hampton Town Board, operator of the airport, imposed strict noise limits, including a curfew, on the hitherto largely unregulated Airport.  The greatest source of the problem that has generated a flood of local noise complaints appears to be the increasing helicopter traffic that ferries well-to-do city dwellers and LaGuardia and Kennedy passengers who live on Long Island to the beach community.  The noise has apparently increased with the imposition of a new rule by the FAA requiring helicopters to fly off the North Shore of Long Island, and cross Long Island at, and into, East Hampton on the South Shore.  The proposed regulatory protocol is dramatic.  

Regulations include an 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. curfew, year round, and 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m., for so-called “noisy” aircraft.  “Noisy” aircraft are defined as aircraft (fixed-wing or helicopter) with Effective Perceived Noise in Decibels (“EPNDB”) approach levels of 91 decibels or greater.  Further, aircraft denominated as “noisy,” will be allowed one take-off and landing per week between May and September.  The Board is scheduled to decide on fines and penalties at its meeting on May 7, 2015.

Not surprisingly, pro-airport groups such as Friends of East Hampton Airport (“Friends”), consisting of, among others, several aviation businesses on the Airport, are displeased with the Board’s decision.  In a graphic demonstration of their disagreement, on April 21, 2015, Friends filed suit in Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York, challenging the Board’s “authority to promulgate noise or access restrictions that conflict with Federal law and policy.”  Friends base their claim principally on the waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) of contractual obligations incurred by the Airport when it accepted Federal funding for Airport improvements (“Grant Assurances”).  49 U.S.C. § 47107.  Grant Assurance No. 9, for example, prohibits Airport operators from “discriminat[ing] unjustly between categories and classes of aircraft.”  The FAA, which would normally enforce the Grant Assurances by, among other mechanisms, withholding Federal funds, or even “clawing back” funds already allocated, has apparently agreed that East Hampton’s Grant Assurance obligations expired in 2014.  Friends, on the other hand, take the position that FAA has no authority to waive the Grant Assurances which, by Friends’ calculation, do not expire until 2021.
 
Both sides, however, appear to miss the point.  In 1990, Congress established a higher authority over airport noise and access than even the Grant Assurances, i.e., the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”).  ANCA gives FAA preemptive authority over the setting of noise levels and imposition of noise and capacity restrictions at airports.  See 49 U.S.C. § 47524(c).  While a limited number of specific exemptions from ANCA do exist, see 49 U.S.C. § 47524(d), the restrictions imposed by East Hampton do not appear to fall within any of those specified exemptions, nor has the Board to date asserted that they do.  Consequently, it further appears that, even if FAA could establish that it properly waived Grant Assurance compliance, the jury remains out as to whether FAA may construe its regulatory function to include an additional waiver of Congress’ express terms and intent as set forth in ANCA, to preempt a “patchwork of local regulations” restricting airport noise and access.

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.  
 

Cities Challenge Federal Aviation Administration Environmental Assessment for Conversion of Paine/Boeing Field to Commercial Airport

On January 31, 2013, the Cities of Mukilteo and Edmonds, Washington, and concerned citizens and organizations in the vicinity of Paine/Boeing Field, Everett, Washington (“Petitioners”) filed a “Petition for Review of Agency Order,” challenging the adequacy of the Environmental Assessment (“EA”) for the conversion of Paine Field from a proprietary facility to a commercial airport. 

Petitioners’ challenge centers around the limited analysis contained in the EA.  While the projects defined in the EA include the grant of Part 139 Operating Certificates for the airport and two airlines, Horizon and Allegiant, as well as the physical construction of various improvements to the terminal and other facilities, admittedly allowing virtually unlimited commercial aircraft operations, the analysis in the EA is limited to only the first phase of the ultimate project.  It describes the environmental impacts of only a 22,000 square foot addition to the existing terminal, and the projected immediate operations of only the two named airlines, while it also acknowledges that, once a Part 139 Operating Certificate is issued for an airport, the law does not allow any limitation on access by any airline that desires such access.  See, e.g., 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990”).

Petitioners are represented by Buchalter Nemer, a firm with extensive experience in the fields of airport law, and environmental and land use law related to airport development.