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.