Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

In a March 27, 2019 appearance before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, Daniel K. Elwell, Acting Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) sought to clarify the FAA’s role in the certification of the safety of aircraft systems. In doing so, he emphasized that the principal responsibility for safety lies with the aircraft manufacturers, with FAA performing merely a review function to determine “if the applicant [for certification] has shown that the overall design meets the safety standards. We do that by reviewing data and by conducting risk based evaluations of the applicant’s work,” Statement of Administrator, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Aviation and Space on the State of Airline Safety: Federal Oversight of Commercial Aviation, March 27, 2019 (“Statement”). The problem with this explanation may not be the adopted approach, but the lapses in FAA’s realization of its part of the bargain.

In the opening discussion of the safety certification system’s underlying philosophy, the Acting Administrator explained that “the FAA focuses its efforts on areas that present the highest risk within the system . . .,” Statement, p. 3, with FAA purportedly “involved in testing and certification of new and novel features and technologies,” Statement, p. 5, a category within which the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”), thought to be a cause of the recent accidents in Ethiopia and Malaysia is included. In fact, as discussed in a comprehensive article of March 17, 2019, “Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system,” posted in the Seattle Times by Dominic Gates, the Seattle Times Aerospace reporter (“Seattle Times Article”), Boeing’s “system safety analysis” of the MCAS:

  • Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.

  • Failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.

  • Assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.” But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed.

Nevertheless, the Acting Administrator goes on to divest FAA of responsibility.


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In recent months, since the tragic crashes of two Boeing 737-Max aircraft in disparate areas of the globe, both the public and the press have expressed surprise at the finding that the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) was delegating to the aircraft manufacturing industry the principal responsibility for formal certification of aircraft safety. They shouldn’t have been so surprised.

The press consistently blames “agency capture,” the process by which federal agencies purportedly develop cooperative, and even symbiotic, relationships with the industries they are tasked with regulating. In fact, in this instance, it was the United States Congress, in Section 312 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), that opened the door to the now questioned delegation of authority over aircraft safety.


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Within hours after FAA’s grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 and 9 aircraft, pilots and aviation experts began to weigh in on the rationale. The first in the chorus was the Acting Administrator, Daniel Elwell, who opined that, in the face of the immediate action to ground the aircraft taken by European aviation authorities, as well as the increasing public outcry, the FAA had discovered “new evidence” from the site of the recent deadly airline crash in Ethiopia that justified defiance of the aeronautical industry urging a more measured approach.

Specifically, the Acting Administrator, in an interview with CNBC, stated that information made available since March 13 verified that the Ethiopian airline’s flight track “was close enough to the track of the Lion Air flight” that had crashed in Indonesia in October 2018 “to warrant the grounding of the airplanes so that we could get more information from the black boxes and determine if there is a link between the two, and, if there is, to find a fix to that link.” Ultimately, the agency concluded “the full track of the Ethiopian flight was very close to Lion Air,” and, thus, justified the grounding. The remaining question of what potentially caused the similar fatal incidence was, however, left up to other aviation experts.


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The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) Reauthorization Act of 2018 (“Act”), passed by Congress on October 3, 2018, devotes an entire section, Title 1, Authorizations, subtitle D, to “Airport Noise and Environmental Streamlining.” Among the 22 provisions enacted by the subtitle, at least 12 deal directly or indirectly with aircraft noise. These provisions almost exclusively require “studies,” “research,” “consideration,” and “reports,” and notably lack, with only three exceptions, any mandate for substantive action.
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On July 20, 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) issued a Press Release unequivocally clarifying its views of the distribution of regulatory authority between federal and local governments with respect to the operation of aircraft, and, more specifically, unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”).  “Congress has provided the FAA with exclusive authority to regulate aviation safety, the efficiency of the navigable airspace, and air traffic control, among other things.  State and local laws are not permitted to regulate any type of aircraft operations such as flight paths or altitudes or the navigable airspace.”

The FAA’s position is not new, but arises directly from the Federal Aviation Act (“FAA Act”), 49 U.S.C. §§ 40103(a)(1) [“The United States government has exclusive sovereignty over the airspace of the United States”], and 49 U.S.C. § 47524(c)(1)(A)-(E), enacted as the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, which prohibits local limitations on Stage 3 aircraft operations in the absence of approval by the Secretary of Transportation and all aircraft operators at the relevant airport.

This seemingly spontaneous reiteration of Congress’ and the agency’s long held positions comes not without provocation.


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Updated April 30, 2018 – In a surprising turnaround of its usual tilt toward the interests of the aviation industry, the United States House of Representatives passed, on April 27, 2018, its version of the six year budget reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (“Reauthorization Act”), a number of provisions that appear to address the long smoldering, and vociferously expressed, concerns of the flying public with, among other things, the unannounced “bumping” of passengers with reservations and paid tickets to make way for airline employees; airline employees’ difficulty in dealing with passengers in such stressful situations; the size and orientation of aircraft seats that have been radically shrinking in order to make room for more passengers; and even the absence of ground transportation accessing the airport itself.  


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In a somewhat ironic twist on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) usual position, on March 26, 2018, FAA ruled in favor of the Town of East Hampton, New York (“Town”), proprietor of the East Hampton Airport, in a challenge by the National Business Aviation Association (“NBAA”) under FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. Part 16, to the expenditure of airport revenues in defense of the Town’s self-imposed airport noise and access restrictions.

The origin of that determination is equally anomalous.  In or about 2015, the Town enacted three local laws limiting aircraft noise at the airport, including restriction on: (1) access by “noisy” aircraft to only one arrival and departure per week; (2) mandatory nighttime curfew from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.; and (3) an extended curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. on “noisy” aircraft.  
 
These local restrictions, however, directly contravene federal law set forth in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”) which has, since 1990, affirmatively preempted local laws which impose: “(A) a restriction on noise levels generated on either a single event or cumulative basis; . . . (D) a restriction on hours of operation.”  49 U.S.C. § 47524(c)(A) and (D).  Predictably, East Hampton’s local regulations were successfully challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  Ultimately, the Petition for Writ of Certiorari, seeking to overturn the Second Circuit’s determination, brought by the Town in the United States Supreme Court, was met with an equal lack of success, despite the Town’s powerful ally, the City of New York.  
 
Apparently, in a last ditch attempt to thwart any future initiatives to enact similar restrictions, the NBAA brought its fight to the FAA.  The gravamen of NBAA’s challenge was the Town’s alleged violation of its contractual obligation (as airport operator) to FAA pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 47107(k), prohibiting “illegal diversion of airport revenue.”  That section includes, among other things, “(A) direct payments or indirect payments, other than payments reflecting the value of services and facilities provided to the airport.”  49 U.S.C. § 47107(k)(2)(A), see also 49 U.S.C. § 47017(b).  
 


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Because the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA’) airspace redesign projects throughout the United States have apparently negatively impacted hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people, and because we have received a number of requests for a discussion of the bases for the currently pending challenge to the FAA’s SoCal Metroplex airspace redesign project, a copy of

On Friday, March 16, 2018, Petitioners in Benedict Hills Estates Association, et al. v. FAA, et al., D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Case No. 16-1366 (consolidated with 16-1377, 16-1378, 17-1010 and 17-1029) filed an Opening Brief in their challenge to the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) in its realignment of flight paths over heavily populated

In an unusual divergence of opinion between aviation related organizations concerning progress in the operation and development of the national air traffic system, the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (“AOPA”), the nationwide organization of private aircraft owners, opposes the plan set forth in the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, H.R. 2997 (“AIRR Act”).  That plan calls for the air traffic control (“ATC”) system currently managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to be removed from federal government control, and turned over to a 13 member, largely private, board, the dominant members of which are the nation’s commercial airlines.  See § 90305.  

The apparent rationale behind the shift, heavily supported by the commercial airline industry, is the consistent delays and resulting costs in fuel and efficiency that have been endemic to the ground based radar air traffic control system in effect since World War II.  The airline industry maintains that insufficient progress has been made in expediting operations to accommodate the increasing number of operations in the United States airspace.  The commercial airlines’ position is supported by the legislative purpose which is “to provide for more efficient operations and improvement of air traffic services.”  See § 201.  
 
AOPA, on the other hand, relies on examples of the disputed improvements in system management which it maintains undercut the airline industry rationale for pursuing privatization.  


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