California Legislators Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of Burbank achieved the seemingly impossible in Congress’ January 14 passage of the $1.012 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, H.R. 3547 (“Appropriations Act”).  The Appropriations Act contains a provision, § 119D, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to achieve reductions in helicopter noise throughout the Los Angeles Basin by 2015.  That section specifies certain voluntary measures, which, if unsuccessful in achieving the desired reductions within one year, must give way to FAA regulations to achieve the stated purposes. 

Specifically, § 119D mandates that:

“The Secretary shall (1) evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles, and make adjustments to such routes if the adjustments would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks; (2) analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles County; (3) develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news gathering; (4) conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and to increase awareness of noise sensitive areas and events; (5) work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system; and (6) continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators:  Provided, That not later than one year after enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall begin a regulatory process related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the Secretary can demonstrate significant progress in undertaking the actions required under the previous proviso.”

Although a seeming triumph for noise impacted communities, the Appropriations Act is neither an unalloyed victory nor does it set a precedent for future legislative initiatives for the following reasons:

First, from a technical perspective, helicopters are obviously different in their operational capabilities from fixed-wing aircraft.  Their flight paths are somewhat flexible, both with respect to direction and altitude (depending on the approach and departure paths to proximate airports).  The flight paths of fixed-wing aircraft on approach and departure from airports, the time of maximum impact on surrounding communities, are, on the other hand, determined to a large extent by runway orientation, an inflexible determinant.  Thus, while it is conceivable that the FAA could obtain some voluntary adjustment to helicopter flight paths, the same adjustment is much more difficult to accomplish with fixed-wing aircraft, as is demonstrated by the number of years it has taken the FAA to enact regulations governing satellite guided approach and departure operations. 

Second, from a legislative perspective, the Appropriations Act, like most legislation establishes broad purposes, but suggests no measures by which to judge the FAA’s success in accomplishing those purposes.  For example, while the FAA is required to “evaluate” whether a specific route adjustment would “lessen impacts on residential areas,” the Bill does not define what constitutes “lessening” and, thus, leaves the door open to the utilization of FAA’s standard measure of noise significance, i.e., whether average noise over a 24 hour period has increased or decreased.  It is therefore conceivable, that FAA could, on the basis of that “average” measure, find that voluntary initiatives are sufficient, thus obviating the need for the regulations sought by impacted communities.

Finally, from a purely political perspective, it is notable that the vehicle used to enact § 119D is an “omnibus” spending bill which includes all of the 12 individual annual spending bills that cover the largest portion of the federal government’s annual discretionary spending (except Social Security and Medicare).  The Appropriations Act gained partisan support in the Congress, largely because it protects against another catastrophic government shutdown.  Outside of a similar vehicle with similar justification, and given the active interest of the aviation community in such legislation, it is highly unlikely that passage of mandates such as that contained in § 119D will be a regular occurrence.  Nevertheless, its passage gives confidence to noise impacted communities that federal legislators are not deaf to their issues.