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.

Continue Reading Congress Gives the Aviation Industry the Keys to the Hen House

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.

Continue Reading Aviation Experts Join Chorus on FAA Grounding of Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 Aircraft

On February 26, 2019, the Idaho Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in favor of Buchalter’s client, Bonner County, owner and operator of Sandpoint Airport in Idaho.

In an action originally seeking tens of millions of dollars against the County, the state’s high court held that the County had fully performed the promises that SilverWing at Sandpoint, LLC (the plaintiff) alleged the County had made, and on that basis reversed the trial court’s order denying the County’s Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict on SilverWing’s claim of promissory estoppel. The Supreme Court explained: “By the time of trial, the County fully performed the promises that SilverWing alleges were made; those promises were never broken.”

The County was sued in 2012 by real estate developer SilverWing for actions the County took in order to achieve compliance with federal aviation regulations and specific safety directives from the Federal Aviation Administration. SilverWing sought tens of millions of dollars in damages, arguing the County frustrated SilverWing’s plans of building a “hangar-home” development adjacent to the airport. The County responded that as the operator of a federally-regulated airport, the County had no power to deviate from FAA mandates.

After the County obtained summary judgment on 3 out of 4 claims in the federal district court (and successfully defended that judgment in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals), the case was remanded back to the state court for trial on the fourth cause of action, promissory estoppel. After a five-day jury trial in Sandpoint, the jury returned a verdict awarding SilverWing only $250k (which was less than 1% of SilverWing’s claimed damages).

The County filed a Motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), arguing that “breach” is a required element of promissory estoppel and that the evidence at trial demonstrated that the County had fulfilled all of the alleged promises. The trial court denied the County’s motion for JNOV, and the County appealed that decision to the Idaho Supreme Court. The Idaho Supreme Court agreed that Bonner County had fulfilled all of its promises to SilverWing, reversed the trial court’s order denying JNOV and vacated the judgment. This was the final chapter in a complete victory for the County, which has already collected $741,730.06 from SilverWing in fees and costs arising from the County’s successful defense of the federal court litigation.

Buchalter Shareholder Paul Fraidenburgh, the aviation attorney who successfully argued the case in the Idaho Supreme Court on behalf of the airport, commented on the decision: “Five out of five justices of the Idaho Supreme Court agree that the County fulfilled all of its alleged promises and that the County is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. We are thrilled to have won yet another significant victory for this public airport.”

The Idaho Supreme Court’s Opinion can be found here: Published Opinion

As the popularity of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) increases, expanding to such hybrid uses as local air taxi services, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has been faced with pressure to loosen existing restrictions on drone operation. The FAA’s initial regulation, 14 C.F.R. Part 107, in essence, gave with one hand while taking away with the other, by prohibiting drone operations under a variety of different circumstances, including a prohibition on operation over people, 14 C.F.R. § 107.39, prohibition on night operations, 14 C.F.R. 107.29, and prohibition on flights over moving vehicles, 14 C.F.R. § 107.25, while providing, at the same time, a process for obtaining waivers of those prohibitions, 14 C.F.R. § 107.200. In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”), RIN 2120-AK85, FAA now proposes to allow operations over people and at night without the need for waivers, if the UAS meet certain preliminary standards, and the remote pilot in command conducts the activity pursuant to the proposed rule.

Continue Reading Drones Get Center Stage as FAA Proposes to Loosen Restrictions

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. Continue Reading Congress Provides for Numerous Noise Studies in 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act

The Los Angeles Daily Journal recognized Paul J. Fraidenburgh as a “Top 40 Under 40” lawyer. The prestigious list honors notable attorneys based in California for their professional achievements.  Mr. Fraidenburgh practices out of Buchalter’s Orange County office, and is a member of the Firm’s Litigation Practice Group.  His practice focuses on the aviation, aerospace, and technology industries.

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.

Continue Reading FAA Stands Firm in Defense of Federal Preemption of Airspace Regulations

On July 6, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) conclusively rejected a comprehensive challenge to the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to promulgate regulations governing that subset of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”) defined in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95 (codified at 49 U.S.C. § 40101, note) (“FMRA”), as “model” aircraft, i.e., those “flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”  FMRA, § 336(c)(3).

In Taylor v. FAA, D.C. Cir. No. 16-1302, the court upheld FAA regulations implementing FMRA § 336, Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, 81 Fed.Reg. 42064 (June 28, 2016), which effectively subjects small UAS (up to 55 pounds, FMRA, § 336(c)(3)), to similar, if not identical, safety standards to those applicable to commercial UAS.

Continue Reading Appellate Court Affirms FAA Control Over Recreational Drones

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.  

Continue Reading FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 Gives the Nod to Passenger’s Rights, Both in the Air and On the Ground

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).  
 

Continue Reading FAA Supports the Right of Airport Sponsor to Use Airport Funds in Defense of Locally Enacted Noise Restrictions