Senate Monitors FAA Airspace Changes Through New Advisory Committee

The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, passed by the United States Senate on April 19, 2016, and previously reported on in this publication, contains another provision that merits comment.  Section 2506, “Airspace Management Advisory Committee” was introduced by Senators McCain and Flake of Arizona, purportedly to provide a communication channel between the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and the public concerning FAA programs for redesign of regional airspace over major public airports.   

The Senators were apparently motivated by their constituents after the FAA initiated a massive redesign of the airspace over the region surrounding Phoenix International Airport, causing substantial and widespread public outcry regarding perceived altitude changes and associated aircraft noise increases, especially over neighborhoods not previously overflown.  Despite these reported impacts, FAA found that the airspace changes created no significant aircraft noise impacts, and, thus, chose to document their determination with a categorical exemption from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”).  The City of Phoenix instituted a two-prong approach in disputing this determination.  It first filed a lawsuit to halt the airspace changes, on the ground that, among other things, a categorical exemption is inapplicable where, among other things, there is a division of an established community caused by movement of noise impacts from one area to another, while at the same time utilizing the political approach by submitting section 2506 through Senators McCain and Flake.  
 
Despite its apparently noble purpose, section 2506 doesn’t quite live up to its publicity.
 

For one thing, the legislation calls only for the establishment of an “advisory committee” to:

 (1) Review practices and procedures of the FAA with regard to “airspace [changes] that affect airport operations, airport capacity, the environment for communities in the vicinity of airports;” including
 
(A) An assessment of whether there is sufficient consultation between various FAA offices involved in the changes; and
 
(B) Between FAA and affected entities including “airports, aircraft operators, communities, and state and local governments;”
 
(2) Recommend revisions to procedures;
 
(3) Conduct a review of FAA data systems used to evaluate obstructions to air navigation, as defined in 14 C.F.R. Part 77; and
 
(4) Ensure that the data described in section 3 is made publicly accessible.  
 
The aims of the legislation may be virtuous, but the procedures used to achieve those ends may be viewed with a grain of salt.  Specifically, the “advisory committee” mandated by the legislation is composed of: (1) air carriers; (2) general aviation, including business aviation and fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft; (3) airports of various sizes and types; (4) air traffic controllers; and (5) state aviation officials, section 2506(c), but does not include any representative of an “affected community,” the very constituency the legislation’s purpose is to assist.  The result is that the interests of those communities will be represented by surrogates, many of whom have interests directly antithetical to those of the communities.  What can be said is that the legislation is a good start at making the FAA more accountable for its decisions with regard to airspace changes.  What is needed now is a next step, perhaps in an amendment to the existing legislation, bringing the affected communities actively into the conversation.  

 

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 Moves to Insulate Itself from Challenges to Clean Air Act Compliance in Airspace Redesigns

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) Reauthorization includes what can only be called an “earmark” that would allow the FAA to escape from compliance with the Clean Air Act on airspace redesign projects.

A proposed Amendment to the Reauthorization would allow FAA to categorically exclude from environmental review any NEXTGEN airspace redesign that will “measurably reduce aircraft emissions and result in an absolute reduction or no net increase in noise levels.” The Clean Air Act’s conformity provision, 42 U.S.C. section 7506, however, requires more for compliance than simply a “reduction in aircraft emissions.” Instead, the conformity rule provides, in pertinent part, that “[n]o department, agency or instrumentality of the Federal Government shall engage in, support in any way or provide financial assistance for, license or permit, or approve, any activity which does not conform to an implementation plan after it has been approved or promulgated [in a State Implementation Plan].” A determination of compliance with a State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) in turn, requires: (1) an inventory of all emissions from an existing airport and surrounding emission sources, including stationary sources, such as auxiliary power units and generating facilities, and mobile sources other than aircraft such as ground support equipment and automobiles; and (2) a comparison of the project’s emissions with the “baseline” established by the inventory. That comparison will determine if the project will result in an exceedance of the benchmark emissions levels established in the SIP.
 

Currently, to escape from these requirements, the project proponent must perform a “Conformity Applicability Analysis” to determine if the project’s emissions will fall below the de minimis emissions levels established in Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) regulation 93.153(c).

The FAA Reauthorization, if enacted, will allow FAA to avoid all of its Clean Air Act responsibilities, and implement airspace redesign procedures that, even if they meet the state goal of reducing delay and thereby reducing aircraft emissions alone, will also increase airport capacity. Increased capacity, or increased number of operations passing through the airport, will potentially give rise to increased emissions impacts not offset by the initial calculation of emissions savings from delay reduction permitted by the Amendment.

In short, FAA is determined to avoid the same legal hurdle it faced in implementing the massive East Coast Airspace Redesign (which is currently being partially redesigned as ineffective). In a challenge to that action, County of Rockland, New York, et al. v. Federal Aviation Administration, et al., United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Case No. 07-1363, numerous public and private entities, including Delaware County, Pennsylvania and the State of Connecticut contested, among other deficiencies, FAA’s total absence of compliance with the Clean Air Act’s conformity provision. The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the absence of compliance, but found it to be a “nonprejudicial error,” because FAA had, in the Final EIS, performed an analysis of purported emissions reductions resulting from alleged delay reductions from the project.

FAA does not want to take the chance that another court may view complete failure to comply with Congress’ detailed enactment in the Clean Air Act as nonprejudicial error, and may require, instead, scrupulous compliance. The most effective avenue at this point is to contact your Senatorial representative and ask them to delete the onerous earmark from the House version of the Reauthorization.
 

Here We Go Again - Another Airspace Redesign for the East Coast

As if seven years of wrangling were not enough, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now proposing changes to the current airspace utilization at Kennedy and Philadelphia International Airports.

 

From 2002 to 2009, governmental and private entities from Connecticut to Pennsylvania, including the State of Connecticut, various local jurisdictions in New York State, environmental organizations in New Jersey, and the County of Delaware, Pennsylvania negotiated with, and ultimately challenged, a comprehensive redesign of the airspace affecting approaches and departures to every airport in the North Eastern United States. Of greatest concern, were new flight paths over dense populations and numerous parks and nature preserves without even a cursory nod to required noise or air quality analysis.

After much contention, FAA got its way. Apparently, however, the East Coast Airspace Redesign didn’t quite work out, because FAA is at it again. First, ostensibly because of persistent delays at Newark, JFK and LaGuardia that were supposed to have been remedied by the panacea of the East Coast Airspace Redesign, hundreds of additional flights will be rerouted from JFK over residential areas in Northern and Central New Jersey. To add insult to injury, the changes will be made through an FAA rulemaking process, and not through the formal processes that characterized the first round of redesigns.

Similarly, the FAA is proposing a modification of the Class B airspace surrounding Philadelphia International Airport that will expand areas impacted by overflight to an even greater extent than did the East Coast Airspace Redesign.

In short, those who are looking down the barrel of these changes should take the opportunity to comment on FAA’s proposals, not only to foster dialogue with FAA concerning the ongoing, increasing and apparently inadequately studied procedures and their impacts, but also to exhaust administrative remedies for a legal challenge should FAA continue to “gild the lily” of the East Coast Airspace Redesign with additional enhancements, to the detriment of already impacted residents and businesses on the ground.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Review of the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)

In a recent report entitled Civil Aviation Growth in the 21st Century, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop strategies to integrate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review into the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) implementation planning process in a way that would make NextGen environmental reviews less costly and time-consuming.

 

In the report, the AIA acknowledges that: (1) redesign of terminal airspace by the FAA requires compliance with NEPA; (2) airspace redesign typically has potentially negative environmental impacts and does not qualify as a “categorical exclusion”; and (3) most often, airspace redesigns require an Environmental Assessment (EA). Every EA must result in either a ‘finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) or a more detailed “environmental impact statement” (EIS). Citing the historical duration and cost of FAA actions involving EAs and EISs, the AIA reports that industry stakeholders in NextGen are frustrated with the time-consuming and costly nature of the NEPA review process, consider it a major impediment to the timely rollout of the system, and would like to see additional efforts to expedite the NEPA process. Although the report does not expressly state that all NextGen EAs should result in a FONSI, it could reasonably be read to suggest that approach in order to save costs and fast-track the NEPA review process.

While it is true that NEPA review is costly and time-consuming, there should be no different, attenuated NEPA review process for NextGen than for any other Federally sponsored or funded project. To subject some arbitrarily chosen Federal projects to less stringent review than NEPA prescribes would require an amendment of NEPA (a highly unlikely eventuality). NextGen is no different than any other Federal effort, and the Congress has clearly spoken about the precise protocols that must be followed. Any initiative to the contrary, without a NEPA amendment, would be contrary to law.

Aviation and Airport Development Updates

A summary review of Aviation and Airport Development related news and information that was made public during the past week. 

  • FAA Administrator Babbitt’s Pilot Fatigue Advisory Committee delivers its recommendationsAn advisory committee on pilot fatigue,convened by Administrator Babbitt, delivered its recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration late Tuesday, September 1, 2009.  Committee members said the FAA had asked them not to make their recommendations public. Although FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has promised to vet the recommendations swiftly and turn them into a formal proposal by the FAA, the process will take months to complete.  09/02/09, Denver Post,  http://bit.ly/4wAugf 
  • FAA gives Southwest until December 24, 2009,  to replace unapproved parts. The FAA will require Southwest Airlines to replace unapproved parts associated with hinge fittings for the exhaust gate assembly--and which help protect aircraft flaps from engine heat--by December 24, 2009.  All other unapproved parts made by the same vendor must also be located and disposed of, and results of aircraft inspections must be sent to the FAA daily.  09/01/09, FAA Press Release,  http://bit.ly/5PAe6
  • FAA tells Haines, Alaska, it cannot designate flight paths for helicopters.  Haines Borough, Alaska, is looking to eliminate flight-path restrictions and expand the number of clients that companies are permitted for commercial helicopter and heli-skiing activities.  The FAA has told the borough that it does not have the authority to regulate airspace, but borough leaders respond that they are only designating flight paths as a condition of a borough permit.  08/27/09, Chilkat Valley News, http://bit.ly/CmFqj
  • Connecticut Governor furious about low-flying F-18s. Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell was incensed about a low-flying F-18 when neither the state of Connecticut nor the FAA had received advance notice about its flight.  A spokesman for Naval Air Force Atlantic stated that the aircraft operated in accordance with all FAA-approved visual flight rules and remained within speed and altitude restrictions.  08/29/09, Hartford Courant, http://bit.ly/P4waO.
  • Expansion of Aero Country Airport in McKinney, Texas Causes Problems. McKinney City Council in Texas has approved development on the east side of the Aero Country Airport that could double its size; nearby residents oppose the expansion plans.  City By laws state that the City Council cannot reverse its decision, and Mayor Pro Tem Pete Huff seems unconcerned about homeowners who say they will move if the city does not halt the expansion, citing that the airport is part of the town.  08/27/09, NBCDFW.com, http://bit.ly/3vk14h.
  • FAA Announces $2.5M grant to soundproof homes in Key West.  The Federal Aviation Administration this week approved a $2.5 million grant to soundproof 38 homes impacted by noise at Key West International Airport.  08/29/09, KeysNet.com, http://bit.ly/phcK7
  • FAA gives Miami-Dade $4.2M to extend main runway at Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport. The FAA gave Miami-Dade $4.2 million to extend the main runway at Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, which would allow heavier planes to use the airport to travel to and from destinations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. With an extended runway Kendall-Tamiami would be able to receive flights that would normally go to Miami International Airport. 08/28/09, South Florida Business Journal, http://bit.ly/sqmn5.
  • FAA signs ROD for Columbus (OH) Regional Airport Authority’s plan to move Columbus Airport’s runway farther south. Columbus Regional Airport Authority’s plans to relocate Port Columbus International Airport’s runway farther south along with other improvements has been approved by the FAA, contingent upon environmental remediation in the area. The next issue for the airport is a decision from the FAA on the level it will be funding the project; the government’s intent to fund only a smaller portion might require the airport authority to reapply.  08/28/09, Columbus Business First, http://bit.ly/flHYd.
  • NTSB suggests to FAA new altitudes for Hudson Corridor.  The NTSB recommended new altitudes to the FAA for helicopters and planes over the Hudson Corridor to prevent something like the Aug. 8 midair collision that killed nine people from reoccurring. In the past, the FAA has often failed to heed NTSB suggestions, with many outstanding recommendations up to 10-15 years old.  08/27/09, The New York Times, http://bit.ly/rFOqg
  • Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal says he will take Airspace Redesign fight to Supreme Court.  Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is disappointed that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has denied an Aug. 19 request to reconsider its refusal to halt the new FAA airspace redesign project. Mr. Blumenthal is preparing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to overturn the ruling and override the FAA, since the FAA used defective data on noise and traffic and failed to follow its own rules and procedures. 08/26/09, acorn-online.com, http://bit.ly/2UUXRs
  • FAA investigates Southwest regarding use of unauthorized parts.  FAA air-safety regulators are investigating unauthorized parts installed on at least 42 Southwest Airlines jets and why the carrier’s maintenance-control procedures failed to identify the problem. The suspect parts do not pose an “immediate safety issue” but planes were temporarily grounded. The controversy exemplifies continuing friction between airlines and federal regulators on how to deal with minor maintenance lapses.  08/26/09, Wall Street Journal, http://bit.ly/4n2Srj.
  • Houston receives $8.8 million in grants from the FAA. The City of Houston Dept. of Aviation received $8.8 million in grants from the FAA to install new state-of-the-art equipment at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). The grants, awarded through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and Voluntary Airport Low Emission (VALE) program, will allow the purchase of equipment and vehicles that are expected to reduce emissions by up to 60 percent. 08/25/09, PRNewswire, http://bit.ly/4hcaM9.

 

Petitioners File Reply Brief in East Airspace Redesign Case

On Friday, March 6, 2009, the Joint Petitioners in the East Coast Airspace Redesign case now pending in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, filed their Reply Brief, arguing that the FAA failed to comply with 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, the Clean Air Act and NEPA.

The Reply Brief takes the FAA to task for failing to consult with the state and local authorities regarding the tremendous impact that the Airspace Redesign will have on "4(f) properties," that is, state and local parks, and wildlife preserves.  It also points out that the FAA is in violation of the Clean Air Act, because it failed to establish that the Airspace Redesign would conform with the Clean Air Act.  Finally, the Reply Brief, argues that the FAA violated NEPA by not following its own regulations concerning aircraft noise in assessing the noise impacts of the Airspace Redesign.

Briefing for the case is now completed and oral argument is scheduled for 9:30 a.m.. on May 11, 2009, in front Judges Sentelle, Ginsburg, and Randolph at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse, 333 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C..  Senators Dodd (D - Conn.) and Specter (R - Pa.) filed a amicus curiae brief supporting the Petitioners' Petition for Review to have the Airspace Redesign vacated and remanded back to the FAA.  The New Jersey Attorney General, Anne Milgram also filed an amicus brief in support of the Petitioners.

Other Posts regarding this Litigation:

 

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Denies Petition for Review of FAA's "Presumed to Conform" Rule

On February 3, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied a petition for review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) “presumed to conform rule.”  72 Fed.Reg. 41565 (July 30, 2007).  

Under the “presumed to conform rule” the FAA can avoid its obligation under the Clean Air Act to assure that its projects “conform to an implementation plan after it has been approved or promulgated under section 7410" of the Clean Air Act.  42 U.S.C. 7506(c).  The FAA used its presumed to conform rule as one of the justifications for its failure to perform a conformity determination in the East Coast airspace redesign.

Although the Court found that the Petitioners did not have standing to bring the petition for review, the petition was successful in at least a couple regards.  First, the decision was based on the predicate issue of standing, and did not reach the merits of the Petitioners’ argument that the FAA had not complied with federal law in the promulgation of its presumed to conform rule.  Thus, that argument may be raised by the Petitioners in the East Coast airspace redesign litigation now pending before the D.C. Circuit.

Second, by bringing this case, Petitioners exhausted their legal remedies with respect to a "facial" challenge to the FAA's presumed to conform rule.  The opinion in this case leaves the validity of the FAA’s presumed to conform rule on the table, ripe for the court’s consideration in the airspace redesign litigation.

That being said, the court’s opinion is not without error.  For example, the court states that the “Petitioners challenge two recent FAA actions in which the FAA altered the air traffic control activities at airports . . .” Opinion, p.4.  However, that, in fact, is not the case.  As stated in the Petitioners’ brief, the issue was whether the FAA followed the rules set out by the EPA in 40 CFR 93.153 in promulgating its presumed to conform rule.  By confusing the Petitioners’ facial challenge of the FAA’s presumed to conform rule for an “as applied” challenge, the court mistakenly applied incorrect facts and law to the matter that resulted in error in the outcome.

You can read the pleadings in this matter right here:

In addition, the EPA is revising the regulations governing conformity. They expect to issue new regulations in early 2009. A group of cities and concerned companies filed comments on the EPA’s proposed revisions and asked the EPA to eliminate the “presumed to conform” rule from the regulations.

Other blog posts on this topic:

FAA Issues Order Limiting Scheduled Operations at Newark Liberty

The FAA first proposed limiting scheduled operations at Newark Liberty in a proposed order that was published in March 18, 2008, Federal Register.  The FAA has now, on May 21, 2008, issued its Order limiting scheduled operations at Newark Liberty Airport.  In the Order states:

  • Takes effect at 6:00a.m. on June 20, 2008;
  • Total air carrier operations will not exceed 81 per hour between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.;
  • The order sunsets on October 24, 2009;
  • Air carriers have been assigned "Operating Authorizations," for specific time slots and operations (i.e., departure or arrival);
  • In order to maintain the Operating Authorizations, the air carrier must use them at least 80% of the time;
  • The Operating Authorizations can be sold and traded, so long as the air carrier has maintained the 80% usage prior to selling or trading. 

The FAA hopes that this will alleviate congestion and delays at Newark Liberty.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters told FAA’s Aviation Forecast Conference in March, 2008, that she believed that the caps at Newark will actually result in an increase in operations at Newark Liberty. She stated that “overall, the caps at Newark allow 30 more operations per day than were offered last summer – just more reasonably spaced."  The question remains, however, whether caps will achieve the goals of reducing delays and congestion without an economic impact on the airlines and quality of life impact on the surrounding communties. 

Alfred Kahn, the Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board under President Carter, in a recent working paper, stated his belief that congestion pricing would be a better approach.  He argues that the allocation of scarce airport resources is an economic problem and should be treated as such, therefore, air carriers should pay for the privilege of taking-off or landing at particular times.

With the summer travel season almost here, we will see what effect the caps at Newark and JFK will have on delays at the airport and noise in the community.