If there is anything to be learned from the FAA’s distribution of the $10 billion in funds allocated to airports in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it is that allocating billions of dollars in just a few weeks is more difficult than it sounds. On March 27, 2020, the CARES Act was signed into law as Public Law No. 116-136. The CARES Act is aimed at mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on most segments of American business and infrastructure. Title XII of the Act specifically supports airports by directing the FAA to make $10 billion available based on each airport’s level of operations and debt. However, when it came to calculating each airport’s share of the pie, the FAA botched the process by employing a formula that allocated massive amounts to some smaller airports while snubbing larger, busier airports.

In April, the FAA attempted to correct the problem by capping each airport’s CARES Act funding at four times the airport’s annual operating budget. The FAA then issued guidance stating that grant funds not used within four years are “subject to recovery by the FAA,” and designated a four year “period of performance” pursuant to 2 C.F.R. section 200.309. In other words, if you don’t use it, you lose it. But just as the FAA has experienced hiccups distributing the grant funds, airport sponsors will inevitably encounter thorny regulatory issues as they attempt to spend millions of dollars in new grant funding while navigating their compliance obligations under the CARES Act. This begs the question, “What are permissible uses of CARES Act grant funds by airport sponsors?”

Continue Reading Permissible Uses of CARES Act Grant Funds by Airport Sponsors

The development of Vertical Take-Off and Landing Vehicles (“VTOL”) looks like the wave of the future, especially where highway traffic is becoming an increasing impediment to a constructive workday. All is not rosy, however, where VTOL must share the air with conventional aircraft and the ground with densely populated urban areas.

The most advanced VTOL to date is a U.S. based technology anticipated to become available for commercial use in 2023. The aircraft is configured to carry four passengers and a pilot (for emergencies, as the aircraft is powered by electricity and designed to fly autonomously); will have a range of about 60 miles; and is expected to be able to take-off and land up to 1,000 times per hour at massive skyports, located on plots of land as small as one acre located throughout the cities served.

Another form of hybrid VTOL currently being developed by a Chinese firm and a Slovakia–based company is a flying car designed to take-off from a runway like a plane, but with the capability of converting into a surface vehicle with retractable wheels and wings.

Finally, there is a hybrid/helicopter/conventional aircraft, the distinguishing characteristic of which is technology aimed at addressing one of the primary issues surrounding the operation of aircraft – noise. To do this, speed of the main rotor will be redirected while flying, apparently without jeopardizing the integrity of the flight process. While numerous other high-end car companies are attempting to break into the market, most were too late to the game, starting the development process in 2018-19.

There are, however, numerous regulatory, as well as developmental hurdles to overcome.

Continue Reading Regulation of VTOLS Lags Far Behind Technology

Over the weekend, the Trump administration added the United Kingdom and Ireland to the list of countries subject to the European travel ban (sometimes the “Ban”) it originally announced on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. In addition to prohibiting the entry of aliens who were physically present within the Schengen Area, the Ban now prohibits the entry of “all aliens who were physically present within the United Kingdom, excluding overseas territories outside of Europe, or the Republic of Ireland,” within fourteen days of their travel.

Citizens of the United States, lawful permanent residents, their families, and certain other individuals remain exempt from the Ban.

Like the original Ban, the updated Ban does not prohibit flights to the United States from affected European countries. Instead, it only prohibits the entry of certain persons into the country. Since the original Ban went into effect on Friday, March 13, 2020, thousands of U.S. Citizens and other exempt individuals have entered the U.S. at one of 13 designated airports throughout the country. Hours-long wait times have been reported at some of these airports, including Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Boston Logan (BOS), as officials screen returning passengers for symptoms of the Coronavirus.

U.S. Citizens and other exempt individuals returning from Europe are being asked to self-quarantine for 14 days after their return.

The updated Ban is set forth in a Presidential Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons who Pose a risk of Transmitting Coronavirus, issued on March 14, 2020. The updated Ban goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. EDT on Monday March 16, 2020.

Stay tuned for further updates on federal Coronavirus response measures affecting the aviation and airport industries.

For further information and analysis on the Ban, please see my prior post here.  The latest Proclamation can be found here.

Airports, airlines, and travelers face a number of dynamic questions and challenges in the wake of the Trump administration’s abrupt televised announcement that the federal government “will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.” The announced European travel ban (sometimes the “Ban”) is set forth in a Presidential Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus (the “Proclamation”). As discussed below, the Proclamation provides further detail that was not immediately clear after the President’s brief televised announcement on Wednesday night.

Continue Reading Travelers, Airlines, and Airports Face Uncertainty after President Trump Announces European Travel Ban

In a somewhat unsubtle attempt to implement the current Administration’s 2017 Executive Order “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” allowing federal agencies to simplify their regulatory mandates, the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), on behalf of its subsidiary agency the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), has instead thrown complex and expensive regulatory/legal hurdles in the path of consumers who attempt to enforce the provisions of current protective regulations. Specifically, the DOT published, on February 28, 2020, in the Federal Register, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”), that purports to simplify “definitions of the terms ‘unfair’ and ‘deceptive’ in the Department’s regulations implementing its aviation consumer protection statute.” See 85 Fed.Reg. 11881. The devil, however, is, as usual, in the details.

Continue Reading FAA Seeks to Free Airlines from “Burden” of Consumer Protections

Passengers seeking to travel with their service animals in the main cabin may soon face new restrictions from airlines, as the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) recently published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to alter existing DOT regulations. 85 Fed. Reg. 6448 (Feb. 5, 2020). The NPRM represents DOT’s latest effort to carry out the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, 49 U.S.C. § 1705 (“ACAA”), which prohibits air carriers from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of physical or mental impairment. The NPRM arises, in part, from DOT’s stated desire to harmonize its regulations with rules promulgated by the Department of Justice to implement Titles II and III of the American’s with Disabilities Act.

Continue Reading DOT Proposes New Regulations on Service Animals in Air Travel

Many communities rely on Congressional representation to establish lines of communication with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) because communication with federal agencies in general and FAA particularly is difficult for the public at large. That reliance may have been overly optimistic as can be seen in a response from FAA (“Response”) to a letter from Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton representing the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus (“Caucus”). In the Response, the new Administrator of the FAA betrays a substantial misunderstanding of the agency’s role in its interaction with both airports and the public.

The Caucus was established principally to articulate to the FAA the interests of noise and air quality impacted communities throughout the nation. While the examples used by the Caucus in its letter are substantially oriented toward East Coast concerns, the issues overlap with those of other communities, including the impacts of NextGen, the reorganization of arrival and departure paths at airports based on new technology, which has consolidated flight paths over previously unimpacted communities in the name of “safety” and “efficiency.”

The FAA’s misunderstanding becomes obvious on the first page of its Response, where FAA takes the position that it is powerless to influence the factors that are the primary cause of airport noise, such as numbers of people that want to fly, and goods that must be delivered by air, thus necessitating more air traffic. While that may be true with respect to demand for air travel, it is patently untrue with respect to supply.

Continue Reading Quiet Skies Congressional Caucus Gets Brush Off from FAA

The concern of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) regarding the use by airport operators of airport generated revenues to soften budget shortfalls off the airport appears to be growing. In a speech delivered at the November 11, 2019 National Air Transportation Association Leadership (“NATA”) Conference, Kirk Shaffer, FAA’s Associate Administrator for Airports, solicited the assistance of the aviation community in working with jurisdictions on compliance. Mr. Shaffer went on to opine that jurisdictions that operate airports are sometimes unaware of the laws governing revenue diversion, or confused by revenue flows, particularly as related to state and local taxes. He illustrated the problem by sharing the fact that, of the 177 jurisdictions with which the FAA has worked over the past five years on revenue diversion issues, 107 still remain noncompliant.

That number of noncompliant jurisdictions is somewhat surprising as the rules governing the use of airport revenues from airports are fairly explicit. The general rule is that revenues generated by a public airport may only be expended for the capital and operating costs of: (1) the airport; (2) the local airport system; or (3) other facilities owned or operated by the airport operator and directly and substantially related to the air transportation of passengers or property. 49 U.S.C. §§ 47107(b)(1) and 47133(a). The use of airport revenue for purposes other than airport capital or operating costs is generally considered “revenue diversion” and is prohibited by federal law. See Policy and Procedures Governing the Use of Airport Revenue, 64 Fed.Reg. 7696, 7720 (February 15, 1999) (“Revenue Policy”). Airport revenues subject to the revenue use requirements include all fees, rents, charges, or other payments received from anyone who makes use of the airport and from the airport sponsor’s activities on the airport. Id. at 7716.

The third prong provides unique revenue allocation opportunities to airport sponsors that own or operate other facilities.

Continue Reading FAA Focuses on Controlling Revenue Diversion

In a decision of October 21, 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) defied its own regulations, federal law, and logic in determining that the City of Santa Monica had properly expended airport revenues in the demolition of 3,500 feet of the runway at Santa Monica Municipal Airport (“SMO”), for the express purpose of limiting access by turbojet aircraft.

In its decision, FAA stated “[w]e conclude that airport revenue may be used to fund the payment removal, pavement pulverization, and hydro-seeding project, including the work within the Runway Safety Area, at SMO. The removal of the subject pavements, pavement pulverization and reuse, and the soil stabilization at SMO appears justified as an airport operating cost.” [Emphasis added]. Existing law and governing regulations would, however, appear to lead to the contrary conclusion.

Continue Reading FAA Ignores Its Own Regulations in Allowing Expenditure of Airport Revenue to Demolish Runway at Santa Monica Municipal Airport