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.  
 

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.  
 

Non-Aeronautical Use Of Airport Land Raises Significant New Issues

An article in the March 23, 2009 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology reports that, because of the decreased demand for air travel and the resulting loss of airport revenues, U.S. airports are seeking to replace lost revenues through non-airline related uses of airport land.  According to AW&ST, almost half of the revenues earned by airports comes from landing fees and rent for ticket counters and gates.  The balance comes from food and retail concessions, parking fees, rental car facilities and on-site hotels.  Therefore, as passenger traffic declines, so do airport revenues.

The declines in passenger traffic and airport revenues have forced airports to focus more on the use of one of their most valuable assets - land.  Many airports are looking at developing airport land for aviation related uses that do not produce passenger generated revenues, such as flight simulator facilities and air cargo facilities.  Some airports are considering non-aeronautical uses of airport property, such as warehouses, distribution centers and light industry, as alternate sources of revenue.

These kinds of uses present a number of potentially critical issues that must be considered in planning the use of airport land for non-aviation purposes, as well as planning for nearby off-airport development.  For example, entry by suppliers and employees of on-airport businesses are likely to create added airport access and security concerns.  New on-airport structures may impact air and ground safety and air traffic control procedures, and limit or restrict future changes in airport configuration and development.  New airport tenants will require new airport ground leases.

Another related question is whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will apply and  enforce Federal grant assurances with respect to non-aeronautical activities on airport property.  Sponsors of public airports that accept Federal assistance, either in the form of grants under the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) or property conveyances under the Surplus Property Act, are obligated to comply with certain written grant assurances that require that the airport be operated for the use and benefit of all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical activity.  Federally obligated airport sponsors are prohibited from discriminating among airport users or granting exclusive rights, i.e., a right granted to a single operator to provide an aeronautical activity to the exclusion of others.  The grant assurances expressly refer only to aeronautical activities.  However, with the advent of increased non-aeronautical activity on airport property, the applicability of grant assurances to such activity is likely to become an important issue.

Other potential issues include increased on- and off-airport surface transportation, increased off-airport development, increased applications by businesses or individuals for access to the airport infrastructure from outside airport property, i.e., “through-the-fence” operations, and various environmental impact issues.