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.  
 

El Paso County Seeks Control Over Colorado Springs Airport

In an exercise of regulatory zeal, El Paso County, Colorado (“County”) now requires that City owned Colorado Springs Airport (“Airport”) obtain a permit from the County for any changes in airport physical development or operations that might affect nearby property located in the County. 

Purportedly under the authority of the Colorado Areas and Activities of State Interest Act, § 24-65-101, et seq., the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) “has specific authority to consider and designate matters of state interest . . . and to adopt guidelines and regulations for administration of areas and activities of state interest. . .”  Pursuant to that purported authority, by Resolution No. 13-267, June 6, 2013, and recorded at Reception No. 213077196 of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, “the Board designated certain areas and activities of state interest” and established “a permit process for development in certain areas of state interest,” Resolution No. 13-530, Resolution Amending Guidelines and Regulations for Areas and Activities of State Interest of El Paso County, and designating additional matters of state interest.  December 17, 2013.  The new areas of state interest designated in the Resolution include: “site selection and expansion of airports,” Resolution, p. 3, § 1.  The County has interpreted the permit process to extend to “runway extension, noise and other impacts that might affect property owners . . .,” Gazette, January 17, 2014, quoting Mark Gebhart, Deputy Director of County Development Services Department. 

Therein lies the rub. 
 

To the extent that the Resolution purports to control the Airport’s airfield configuration, and because the Airport is owned and operated by another jurisdiction, the City of Colorado Springs, the Resolution runs into the brick wall of federal preemption.  “Under the doctrine of preemption, federal law prevails over state law if Congress has expressed an intent to occupy a given field in which federal law is supreme.”  Bethman v. Ukiah, 216 Cal.App.3d 1395, 1405 (1989).  By virtue of Congress’ clearly expressed intent in the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101, et seq., to occupy the field of aircraft safety, federal law expressly preempts state law in those areas enumerated in Federal Aviation Act § 40103(b). 

Under Federal Aviation Act § 40103(b), the FAA Administrator is exclusively tasked with developing “plans and policies for the use of navigable airspace and assign[ing] by regulation or order the use of the airspace necessary to ensure the safety of aircraft and efficient use of airspace.”  Federal Aviation Act § 40103(b)(1).  The scope of the mandated air traffic regulations is broad, including, but not limited to, “(B) protecting individuals and property on the ground; (C) using the navigable airspace efficiently; and (D) preventing collision between aircraft, between aircraft and land or water vehicles, and between aircraft and airborne objects.”  Federal Aviation Act § 40103(b)(2)(B)-(D).  Toward that end, FAA also mandates the airfield dimensions necessary to safely accommodate the arrival and departure of aircraft, including runway and taxiway dimensions and certain zones around airports such as the Runway Protection Zone that airports must keep free of obstructions both on the ground and in the air.  See, e.g., 14 C.F.R. Part 77; FAA Order 5190.6B, Part IV, Chapter 21, § 21.6(f)(6), p. 21-9.  The United States Supreme Court has also recognized the supremacy of federal law governing aviation safety. 

“The Federal Aviation Act requires a delicate balance between safety and efficiency, [cites omitted] and the protection of persons on the ground.  [Cites omitted] . . .  The interdependence of these factors requires a uniform and exclusive system of federal regulation if the congressional objectives underlying the Federal Aviation Act are to be fulfilled.  [Cites omitted].”

City of Burbank v. Lockheed Air Terminal, 411 U.S. 624, 638-639 (1973). 

While the Resolution purports to be exclusively aimed at protecting nearby land uses; and while it is true that the Congress did not bestow upon FAA authority to regulate off-airport land uses, see, e.g., FAA Order 7400.2J, § 5-1-2.a, to the extent that the Resolution aims at controlling airport operations (which are the source of off-airport noise), or configuration (e.g., runway alignments), the Resolution falls squarely into the area of authority assigned exclusively to the federal government.

The Colorado Springs City Attorney’s Office agrees that the rules are vaguely drafted and in some conflict with federal regulations.  That opinion does not, however, go far enough.  The City should find guidance in the experience of the State of California’s Department of Transportation’s (“Caltrans”) attempt to impose a curfew upon operators at San Diego International Airport.  San Diego Unified Port District v. Gianturco, 651 F.2nd 1306, 1317 (9th Cir. 1981).  That case teaches that the local land use jurisdiction surrounding an airport should seek to control airport impacts by controlling proximate sensitive land uses, including residential uses, within their jurisdictions, not by controlling airport operations and physical development located outside it.