In a somewhat unsubtle attempt to implement the current Administration’s 2017 Executive Order “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” allowing federal agencies to simplify their regulatory mandates, the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), on behalf of its subsidiary agency the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), has instead thrown complex and expensive regulatory/legal hurdles in the path of consumers who attempt to enforce the provisions of current protective regulations. Specifically, the DOT published, on February 28, 2020, in the Federal Register, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”), that purports to simplify “definitions of the terms ‘unfair’ and ‘deceptive’ in the Department’s regulations implementing its aviation consumer protection statute.” See 85 Fed.Reg. 11881. The devil, however, is, as usual, in the details.
Passengers seeking to travel with their service animals in the main cabin may soon face new restrictions from airlines, as the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) recently published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to alter existing DOT regulations. 85 Fed. Reg. 6448 (Feb. 5, 2020). The NPRM represents DOT’s latest effort to carry out the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, 49 U.S.C. § 1705 (“ACAA”), which prohibits air carriers from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of physical or mental impairment. The NPRM arises, in part, from DOT’s stated desire to harmonize its regulations with rules promulgated by the Department of Justice to implement Titles II and III of the American’s with Disabilities Act.
Many communities rely on Congressional representation to establish lines of communication with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) because communication with federal agencies in general and FAA particularly is difficult for the public at large. That reliance may have been overly optimistic as can be seen in a response from FAA (“Response”) to a letter from Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton representing the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus (“Caucus”). In the Response, the new Administrator of the FAA betrays a substantial misunderstanding of the agency’s role in its interaction with both airports and the public.
The Caucus was established principally to articulate to the FAA the interests of noise and air quality impacted communities throughout the nation. While the examples used by the Caucus in its letter are substantially oriented toward East Coast concerns, the issues overlap with those of other communities, including the impacts of NextGen, the reorganization of arrival and departure paths at airports based on new technology, which has consolidated flight paths over previously unimpacted communities in the name of “safety” and “efficiency.”
The FAA’s misunderstanding becomes obvious on the first page of its Response, where FAA takes the position that it is powerless to influence the factors that are the primary cause of airport noise, such as numbers of people that want to fly, and goods that must be delivered by air, thus necessitating more air traffic. While that may be true with respect to demand for air travel, it is patently untrue with respect to supply.
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.
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.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) relies on the mantra “safety is our business, our only business” where, for example, justifying changes in aircraft flight paths over heavily populated residential communities. But is that reality? Not according to the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Transportation (“OIG”) report of October 23, 2019, Department of Transportation’s Fiscal Year 2020 Top Managerial Challenges (“OIG Report”), when dealing with members of one of FAA’s primary constituencies, the aircraft manufacturers.
Specifically, the OIG Report highlights significant “challenges FAA faces in meeting its safety mission,” p. 1. Most notable is the correction of its lax oversight of aircraft certification procedures as graphically demonstrated by the recent deaths of 346 people in two separate crashes of Boeing’s 737-Max 8 aircraft, at least preliminarily thought to have been caused by systemic malfunctions in computer systems designed and installed by Boeing but never disclosed to operators.
Continue Reading DOT Inspector General Finds “Challenges” in Achievement of FAA’s Safety Mission
In its report of September 27, 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), although acknowledging the need for Boeing to “fine tune” its technology to prevent the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”) from automatically repeating and sending a plane into uncontrolled dives, NTSB focused more on pilots “confusion” in responding to multiple alarms caused by the malfunction in the MCAS system control sensors. NTSB then followed up by issuing seven recommendations calling on the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to update how it assumes pilots will react in emergencies and make aircraft more “intuitive” when things go wrong, in an effort to ensure that “average pilots” can respond to complex emergencies.
The Joint Authorities Technical Review Panel, made up of experts from the FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) and nine other regulatory agencies from around the world, in its report of October 12, 2019 (“Joint Authorities Report”), reached a dramatically different conclusion. It instead took FAA to task for failing to follow its own rules, using out of date procedures, and lacking the expertise to fully explore the design changes for the aircraft implicated in the two crashes.
During the week of August 19, 2019, both the Appellate and Supreme Courts of California issued decisive opinions clarifying the parameters of agency action subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq., (“CEQA”). The courts were responding to repeated efforts by public entities to circumvent their CEQA obligations by redefining the actions that constitute a “project” subject to analysis under CEQA. Those public entities which have attempted to so minimize their exposure under CEQA include several airports in California, most notably, Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”). In its environmental review of the Specific Plan Amendment Study of several years ago, LAX relied on precisely the Project Definition soundly rejected by the California courts as set forth below.
On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court, in a decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, chose to overrule a lower Appellate Court and almost a century of precedent which purportedly required property owners whose property is “taken” by state or local government agencies, either through regulation or physical incursion, to go through local and state legal processes before turning to the federal courts for relief under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Under the new ruling in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 588 U.S. ___ (2019), the court majority (consisting of Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas and Kavanaugh) ruled that property owners may bring Fifth Amendment claims for compensation as soon as their property has been taken, “regardless of any post-taking remedies that may be available to the property owner,” citing Jacobs v. United States, 290 U.S. 13, 17 (1933), under state or local law.
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states categorically “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The devil, of course, is in the definitions. The Supreme Court has broadened its interpretation of the term “taking” over the years, from “physical occupation of property,” Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp., 458 U.S. 419 (1982); to regulation that comes close to physical occupation by conditioning the grant of a government approval upon a relinquishment of some or all of property interest, e.g., an easement, over real property, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825 (1987); to a regulation that deprives property of all of its economically viable use, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992).
The dissent, however, chose to agree with the lower court and to rely on precedent purportedly establishing that: “‘[A] Fifth Amendment claim is premature until it is clear that the Government has both taken property and denied just compensation’ (emphasis in original)). If the government has not done both, no constitutional violation has happened.” See, e.g., Horne v. Department of Agriculture, 569 U.S. 513, 525-26 (2013).
Based on the assertion that no taking has occurred if the possibility of compensation still exists, the dissent proceeds to the second question: “At what point has the government denied a property owner just compensation, so as to complete a Fifth Amendment violation?” Knick, supra, 588 U.S. at p. 3. The dissent found the answer in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), in which the court found that the property owner had improperly sued a local planning commission in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an alleged taking, before availing itself of available state law remedies.
The Knick majority firmly rejected the dissent’s position.
In a June 19, 2019 hearing of the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation, representatives of pilots’ organizations directly involved in, and affected by, the structural issues identified in the Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, that caused the tragic deaths of 346 passengers, called The Boeing Company (“Boeing”), and its federal regulatory partner, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to account in no uncertain terms.
Daniel Carey, a 35 year career American Airlines Captain, and President of the Allied Pilots Association (“APA”), testified as to what pilots regard as the fundamental issues with oversight by FAA.
Carey opines that the disasters arose from two fundamental problems: (1) the addition of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”) without additional training, or even notification to pilots of its existence; and (2) failure of the requisite oversight by FAA. First, in an effort “to minimize the operating costs to Boeings customers by allowing the Max to be certified by FAA as a 737,” rather than requiring additional procedures that might be required for a substantial variation from the original 737 design, “this lead Boeing’s engineers to add the MCAS system.” Also according to Carey, many additional mistakes were subsequently made by Boeing engineers.