Congressional Stalemate Persists over Air Traffic Control Privatization as FAA Reauthorization Deadline Approaches

The integration of cutting-edge aviation technology such as commercial drones and the modernization of our national airspace system are just a couple of the pressing aviation issues hanging in the balance this summer as Congress seeks common ground on FAA Reauthorization legislation.  

With the July 15, 2016 expiration of the current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization legislation rapidly approaching, congressional disagreement over a plan to privatize Air Traffic Control is preventing bicameral endorsement of a path forward.  
 
On April 19, 2016, the Senate passed its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization legislation by an overwhelming margin of 95-3 (initially introduced as S. 2658 and later merged into H.R. 636). The Senate’s FAA legislation would reauthorize FAA programs through September 2017, and would focus billions of dollars and government resources on some of the most pressing aviation issues including the promotion of widespread commercial drone operations, bolstering airport security, and adding new safety systems in private aircraft. However, the Senate’s FAA Reauthorization legislation is arguably more notable for what it would not do than for what it would do. 
 

Namely, it would not privatize Air Traffic Control.  In the House of Representatives, the pending Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 would completely overhaul domestic Air Traffic Control operations by moving the operations out of the FAA to a non-profit corporation. If successful, the House bill would place approximately 38,000 Air Traffic Control employees, and the management of the safest national airspace system in the world, in the hands of a private corporation.  

Though the Senate and House bills share many commonalities, each passing day without congressional consensus brings mounting fears that the current efforts to modernize American aviation will devolve into an endless string of short-term extensions. The July 15 deadline has industry insiders calling for the House to adopt the Senate’s more measured approach to reauthorization and to table the Air Traffic Control overhaul until 2017.  

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.  

 

Senate Bill Approves Package Delivery by Drone

On April 19, 2016, the full Senate of the United States passed the “Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016” (“FAA Act”), which had been previously passed by the full House of Representatives in February, 2016.  The FAA Act contains several notable provisions, the first of which, Section 2142, regarding federal preemption of local drone regulations, was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 17, 2016, and reported in this publication on March 31.  

The FAA Act, as finally approved by the Senate, devotes substantial additional space to unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), and, most notably for this purpose, Section 2141, “Carriage of Property by Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Compensation or Hire.”  (Section 2141 will be codified in the main body of the legislation at Section 44812.)  That provision was clearly authored by Amazon, which has made considerable noise about the capability of UAS to deliver its products expeditiously and at low cost.  The FAA Act gives the Secretary of Transportation two years to issue a final rule authorizing the carrying of property by operations of small UAS within the United States.  
 
The requirement for the contents of the final rule is, however, clearly specified in the Act.  
 

First, each carrier of property will be required to obtain a “Small Unmanned Aircraft System Air Carrier Certificate” which must include:  

A. Consideration the unique characteristics of highly automated unmanned aircraft systems; and
 
B. Minimum requirements for safe operations, including
 
(i) Confirmation of airworthiness;
 
(ii) Qualifications of operators; and
 
(iii) Operating specifications.
 
In addition, the FAA Act requires a process for issuance “that is performance based and ensures required safety levels are met.”  Section 44812(b)(2).  Specifically, the Bill requires the certification process to consider:
 
A. The safety risks of operating UAS around other UAS and over persons and property on the ground;
 
B. Competencies and compliance” of manufacturers, operators, and parts manufacturers of UAS; and
 
C. Compliance with requirements established in other sections of the legislation.
 
Finally, the legislation establishes a “small unmanned aircraft system air carrier classification” to “establish economic authority for the carriage of property,” Section 44812(b)(3), which only requires registration with the Department of Transportation, and a valid Small Unmanned Aircraft System Air Carrier Certificate issued pursuant to the legislation.  
 
Clearly, there is much more involved in assessing the readiness of UAS to transport packages over inhabited areas.  Only the final rule will reveal the full scope of the regulation that may be necessary to monitor and control a proliferating industry. 
 

 

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.  
 

FAA Reauthorization Act Changes Rules for Valuation of Residential Properties

Exemption of NextGen procedures from environmental review is not the only issue raised by the FAA Reauthorization legislation set to be approved by the United States Senate on Monday, February 6 at 5:30 p.m. EST.  Section 505 of the Conference Version of the Bill allows a public entity taking private residential properties by eminent domain for airport purposes to pay the value of the property after its value has been diminished by the pendency of the project itself, and by any delay by the public entity in purchasing the property.  In other words, the Congress is overriding the long held judicial precept that “temporary takings are as protected by the Constitution as are permanent ones.”  See, e.g., First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. Los Angeles County, California, 482 U.S. 304, 318 (1987).

Specifically, § 505 amends 49 U.S.C. § 47504 to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to “disregard any decrease or increase in the fair market value of the real property caused by the project for which the property is to be acquired, or by the likelihood that the property would be acquired for the project. . .”  Thus, hypothetically, once government announces a program of eminent domain, it may wait an unlimited time to appraise the property in the hope that the value will diminish by virtue of the threat itself, or of the deterioration of the surrounding areas caused by voluntary relocation in the face of the threat of condemnation.

This is precisely the inequity the weight of Supreme Court jurisprudence has sought to eliminate.  It is true that this case differs nominally from the typical case of “inverse condemnation,” i.e., a taking by government of all economically viable use of a property by regulation without just compensation, Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 535 U.S. 302, 350 (2002).  However, the absence of compensation for the indeterminate period before the actual purchase of the property, during which time the property arguably has no economically viable use, is paramount to the “temporary” taking at issue in, among other seminal cases, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992). 

In summary, the FAA Reauthorization Act adds the insult of potential undisclosed impacts of new NextGen procedures on previously non- or marginally impacted communities, to the injury of reduced compensation for residential properties eventually impacted, even if the reduction in value of those properties is caused by the airport’s intentional delay in purchasing the property.
 

There May Still Be Time to Weigh in on the Congressional Action to Exempt the NextGen Technologies from NEPA Review

As we reported yesterday in our blog titled “FAA Reauthorization Act Exempts Next Generation Airspace Redesign Projects from Environmental Review,” Congress is set to act on the conference version of H.R. 658 (“Act”), a Bill the nominal purpose of which is to fund the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) for 2011-2014, a task Congress has been unable or unwilling to accomplish for the last two years. 

The legislation goes far beyond funding, however.  Toward another stated purpose - to “streamline programs” - the Act sets out the parameters for establishment and operation of FAA’s Next Generation Transportation System (“NextGen”).  Not stopping there, it also “creates efficiencies” by exempting the NextGen program from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), Act, § 213.  Thus, whole communities around at least 30 “core” airports might be newly impacted by aircraft overflights seemingly without the opportunity for public review and comment before the NextGen project is implemented, and without an avenue of leverage in the courts afterwards.  All is not yet lost, however.
 

Citizens appear to have at least three remaining means to obtain relief.  First, H.R. 658 is set for Congressional consideration at 5:30 p.m., Monday, February 6, 2012.  However, if communities around airports throughout the United States weigh in en masse with their Senators and Congressmen, between now and then, by e-mail, the legislation’s summary consideration may be considerably lengthened.  With enough vocal opposition from the public, it is even possible, though not probable, that the offending § 213 may be deleted. 

Another strategy for overcoming the obstacle to environmental relief being established by Congress involves response to the solicitation of comments on proposed changes to FAA regulations, 14 Code of Federal Regulations § 91, 121, 125, 129 and 135, 76 Fed.Reg. 77,939 (December 15, 2011), adding regulations governing NextGen.  The Congressional exemption from NEPA allows for the Administrator to exercise discretion in deciding whether “extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure,” such that the presumption of no significant environmental effect may be abrogated.  § 213(c)(1) and (2).  Thus, relevant comments on the new regulations would include an exhortation to the Administrator to expand the parameters of the “extraordinary circumstances,” from the already existing factors of increased fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and noise, to include revision in flight paths that bring aircraft over communities not previously overflown, and which substantially lower altitudes over communities that are currently overflown.

Finally, and hopefully as a last resort, there remains recourse to other Federal statutes as a basis for court action.  A categorical exclusion under NEPA does not excuse FAA from complying with its obligations under other environmental statutes.

In short, what is critically important in the short run is: (1) a massive and focused campaign to convince our Congressional representatives that the public health and welfare should be as well protected as administrative “efficiencies;” and (2) a well-orchestrated set of comments on the regulatory revisions governing NextGen to take advantage of the loopholes in the Federal legislation.

FAA Reauthorization Act Exempts Next Generation Airspace Redesign Projects from Environmental Review

In a monument to political deal making, the United States Congress is today considering, in the House and Senate Aviation Committees, the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012," H.R. 658 ("Act") to, among other things, "authorize appropriations to the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal years 2011-2014 . . ." It is, however, the other provisions of the legislation which most profoundly affect the public.   

Purportedly to "streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste and improve safety and capacity," the most recent version of the Act to emerge from the House-Senate Conference Committee exempts all new area navigation ("RNAV") and required navigation performance ("RNP") procedures, which collectively comprise the "Next Generation Air Transportation System" ("NextGen"), Act § 201, Definitions, from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. ("NEPA"). 

The Act, generally, mandates that all "navigation performance and area navigation procedures developed, certified, published or implemented under this section [Section 213] shall be presumed to be covered by a categorical exclusion (as defined in § 1508.4 of Title 40, C.F.R.) under Chapter 3 of FAA Order 1050.1E, unless the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure." Act, § 213(c)(1).   

The Act expands on this mandate in § (c)(2). "NEXTGEN PROCEDURES - Any navigation performance or other performance based navigation procedure developed, certified, published or implemented that, in the determination of the Administrator, would result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise, on a per flight basis, as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace, shall be presumed to have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment and the Administrator shall issue and file a categorical exclusion for the new procedure."

Certainly some of the duplication will be removed in the Act's final version. But the bottom line will remain. Dramatic changes in the configuration of the national airspace system, to be implemented throughout the United States during the next few years, will be relegated to "a category of actions which do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment and which have been found to have no such effect in procedures adopted by a federal agency in implementation of these regulations . . . and for which, therefore, neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is required." 40 C.F.R. § 1508.4. This is so despite the fact that, in many cases, the new NextGen procedures will implicate numerous communities never before overflown, or never overflown at the same low altitudes. Newly affected populations will thereby be deprived of an avenue of redress in the courts through NEPA on which they have come to depend to level the playing field usually dominated by governmental action. The fundamental intent of NEPA, to allow the public a chance to review and comment on governmental actions before they are taken, will effectively be bypassed by the Act. 

Nor do the conditions on a finding of categorical exclusion, such as the requirement for a measurable reduction in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide or noise, mitigate the adverse impacts of the exemption, as the determination that those conditions exist is within the exclusive discretion of the FAA Administrator, the same party charged with implementing the NextGen program.   

There are two potential courses of action still available to interested parties and affected populations. The first is short term: to call Senators and Congressmen to express opposition to the apparent end run around NEPA's protections. The second is longer term, and involves other statutes that can be applied to take up where NEPA protections will now leave off. The next few days will determine whether the legal strategy in alternative two will eventually be required. First, it's time for the affected public to weigh in with its political leaders to protect its best interests. Stay tuned for the next chapter.