On June 13, 2023, a bipartisan Committee of the United States Senate jointly proposed legislation, S. 1939, to amend the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. Section 40101 et. seq., the stated purpose of which legislation is to “authorize appropriations for the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal years 2024 through 2028, and for other purposes.”
The legislation contains both positive and negative news for noise impacted communities.
On the positive side, the legislation calls for greatly enhanced air traffic control staffing and training, Section 521, for the clear purpose of preventing future operational delays that have been challenging air travelers to the present. Moreover, the legislation is replete with relief to air travelers for delayed or cancelled flights; notifications for qualification for refunds for the same or for those that do not take place at all, and various mechanisms for disclosure of the new, or now existing, rights. Sections 703-707.
On the less positive side, especially for communities effected by airport noise, are the sections of the legislation dedicated to expansion of airport facilities and, ultimately, capacity. For example, from a “top down” perspective, the legislation proposes to give FAA power to approve or disapprove even those portions of Airport Layout Plans proposing development on property NOT purchased with Federal funds. See Section 628. Even in that case, the legislation allows FAA to review the development plan to determine: “(A) if it materially impact[s] the safe and efficient operation of aircraft… (B) adversely affects the safety of people or property on the ground…; or (C) adversely affects the value of prior Federal investments to a significant extent.” Obviously, this holds a proverbial hammer over the heads of airport operators, threatening FAA’s disapproval of the development plan, and, ultimately, denial of airport improvement dollars, if FAA doesn’t like the plan, even though it doesn’t own, doesn’t control, and didn’t fund that portion of the property that is affected.
In addition, the legislation not only provides for funding of physical increments to airport capacity, but also a revision to the regulatory framework allowing even greater capacity to be developed. Specifically, the legislation calls for enhancement of the regional airport network with “(2) ways that existing regulations and policies could be streamlined to facilitate the development of new airport capacity….” Section 638 (a)(2), as well as increased support of General aviation airports with a “General Aviation program Runway Extension Pilot Program.” Among the stated purposes of that “Program” is to “(1) expand access to such airports for larger aircraft; …” by granting funding for the extension of their runways. It sounds good from an economic perspective but it ignores that General Aviation airports are often surrounded by residential development, both existing and new, that may be severely impacted by extension of a runway to accommodate the growth in demand. The legislation also calls for the expansion of “Vertiport” projects, i.e. those facilities meant to serve an aircraft “with advanced technologies, including electric aircraft, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace,” Section 823 (b)(1), even though there is already substantial objection from communities located under the flight paths of vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
While the legislation also purports to provide some relief from airport noise, its benefits, if any, are ephemeral. On the one hand, the legislation calls for an “Aircraft Noise Advisory Committee”, Section 917, including representatives of the public, the duties of which would purportedly include “(1) the evaluation of existing research on aircraft noise impacts and annoyance; (2) the assessment of alternative noise metrics that could be used to supplement or replace the existing Day Night Level (DNL) standard; (3) the evaluation of the current 65-decibel exposure threshold including the impact to land use compatibility around airports if such threshold were lowered; (4) the evaluation of current noise mitigation strategies and the community engagement efforts by the FAA…”
On the other hand, the Legislation opens the door to increasing noise from unmanned aircraft by allowing “a programmatic level approach to NEPA review”, Section 805, which essentially requires the representation of noise impacts as they are averaged over an entire geographic region rather than as they occur from specific operations over a specific area. Unmanned aircraft are also given the benefit of additional “categorical exclusions” from the jurisdiction of the National environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et. seq. (“NEPA”), such that communities affected by such operations will find it more difficult to rely on NEPA to vindicate their rights.
In short, the “bipartisan” legislation is a weak compromise with aviation industry interests. Stay tuned for the legislation’s path through Congress.