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.


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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.


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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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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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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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Up against a September 30th deadline for the passage of legislation before its recess, Congressman Bud Shuster introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (“21st Century AIRR Act” or “Act”), H.R. 2997.  Although somewhat obscured by its name and size (in excess of 200 pages), one of the central points of the Bill is the transfer of air traffic control responsibility from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to a private sector corporation (“Corporation), i.e., privatization of the air traffic control system.  The Bill betrays the speed of its development through its lack of specificity on a number of critical issues.


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On January 17, 2017, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 5, the “Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017.”  Buried deep within its pages is Title II, the “Separation of Powers Restoration Act.”  That title, although only two sections long, dramatically changes the legal landscape for challenges to the actions of federal regulatory agencies.  Currently, in adjudicating challenges to administrative rulemaking and implementing actions, the federal courts invoke the precedent established in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 844 (1984).  In that case, the Supreme Court held: “We have long recognized that considerable weight should be accorded to an executive department’s construction of a statutory scheme it is entrusted to administer…”  In adopting Chevron, the Supreme Court effectively gives administrative agencies almost complete deference, not only in the interpretation of the regulations they implemented, but also, and more controversially, in the way the agencies carry out the mandates of those regulations.  Thus, challengers seeking to use the judicial system to point out and rectify what are perceived as misapplication of the regulations, butt up against the reluctance of the courts to question or interfere with the agency’s construction of the regulation or the evidence and its application in carrying out the agency’s order.  In Title II, the Congress has stood the current deferential standard on its head. 


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Today, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) announced the finalization of its long-awaited Final Rule governing routine commercial operation of unmanned aircraft systems weighing 55 lbs. or less.  The new 14 C.F.R. Part 107 will become effective 60 days from the date of its publication in the Federal Register, which is likely to happen this week or next.

Below is an explanation of how the new Part 107 will affect entities that have already received a Section 333 exemption, followed by a summary of the new operational requirements and restrictions:
 
Section 333 Exemption Holders Get Best of Both Worlds: “Grandfathered” Compliance Status and the Option to Take Advantage of the New Rules
 
In the Final Rule, the FAA was careful to protect Section 333 exempt entities from the burden of complying with an additional layer of regulations.  Instead, Section 333 exemption holders will be “grandfathered” into compliance, as explained by the FAA below:
 
“The FAA clarifies that current section 333 exemptions that apply to small UAS are excluded from part 107. The FAA has already considered each of these individual operations when it considered their section 333 exemption requests and concluded that these operations do not pose a safety or national security risk.
 
The FAA recognizes, however, that there may be certain instances where part 107 is less restrictive than a section 333 exemption. Therefore, under this rule, a section 333 exemption holder may choose to operate in accordance with part 107 instead of operating under the section 333 exemption. This approach will provide section 333 exemption holders time to obtain a remote pilot certificate and transition to part 107. Operations that would not otherwise fall under part 107 may not take advantage of this option. For example, an operation with a section 333 exemption that does not fall under part 107, such as an operation of a UAS weighing more than 55 pounds, would not have the option of operating in accordance with part 107 rather than with its section 333 exemption.
 
Additionally, when section 333 exemptions come up for renewal, the FAA will consider whether renewal is necessary for those exemptions whose operations are within the operational scope of part 107, which also includes those operations that qualify for a waiver under part 107. The purpose of part 107 is to continue the FAA’s process of integrating UAS into the NAS. If a section 333 exemption is within the operational scope of part 107, there may be no need for the agency to renew an exemption under section 333. Because the FAA’s renewal considerations will be tied to the outstanding section 333 exemptions’ expiration dates, a 3-year transition period is not necessary. This will not affect those section 333 exemptions that are outside of the operational scope of part 107 or where a part 107 waiver would not be considered.”  
(Final Rule, Pages 83-84.)
 
Thus, for Section 333 exemption holders, the result is the best of both worlds.  On the one hand, Section 333 exempt entities are not required to modify their current commercial drone operations to comply with the new regulations.  On the other hand, if a Section 333 exempt entity identifies an opportunity to perform certain operations under less stringent restrictions promulgated in the new Part 107, it may “choose to operate in accordance with part 107 instead of operating under the section 333 exemption.”
 
Here is the FAA’s Summary of the new operational limitations, Pilot in Command and certification responsibilities, and aircraft requirements:
 
 


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On March 17, 2016, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate approved amendments to the most recent funding legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, that, among other things, appear to preempt to preempt local and state efforts to regulate the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”).  

Federal preemption is the displacement of state and local laws which seek to govern some aspect of a responsibility that Congress views as assigned by the Constitution exclusively to the federal government.  Preemption by statute is not uncommon in legislation dealing with transportation, and its relationship to interstate commerce.  For example, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 49 U.S.C. § 41713, specifically “preempts” local attempts to control “prices, routes and service” of commercial air carriers by local operators or jurisdictions.  Similarly, the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”) preempts local efforts to establish airport noise or access restrictions.  The Senate’s current amendments, however, appear, at the same time, broader in scope, and more constrained by exceptions than previous legislative efforts.  They also hit closer to home for the average American concerned about the impact on daily life of the proliferation of UAS for all uses, including, but not limited to, the delivery of packages.  
 


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Less than a month ago, it seemed clear that privatization was the wave of the future for the United States Air Traffic Control System (“ATC System”).  On February 19, 2016, the United States House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (“H.R. 4441” or “FAA Reauthorization Act”), the centerpiece of which was the establishment of an independent, nonprofit, private corporation to modernize the U.S. ATC System and provide ongoing ATC services.  The benefits of such “privatization” were seen to include less expense, less backlog in the implementation of air traffic control revisions, in essence, greater efficiency in the development, implementation, and long-term operation of the ATC System.  Central questions still remain, however, concerning the synergy of a private corporation’s management of the ATC System with the overarching statutory regime by which it is currently governed.  


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