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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Tweed-New Haven Airport, seeking to extend its 5,600 foot runway to 7,200 feet, has run into an unexpected roadblock.  A Federal Magistrate in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut has determined that Connecticut’s Gen. Stat. 15-120j(c) (providing, in part, that “[r]unway 2/20 of the airport shall not exceed the existing paved runway length of five thousand six hundred linear feet”), is not preempted by federal law.  Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority v. George Jepsen, in His Official Capacity as Attorney General for the State of Connecticut, Case No. 3:15cv01731(RAR).  The Magistrate concludes that the state statute “does not interfere with plaintiff’s ability to comply with federal aviation safety standards,” because: (1) the “Plaintiff has failed to present evidence that the runway length in this instance is a component part of the field of airline safety,” and, thus, does not violate the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101, et seq., Memorandum of Decision, p. 39; (2) the statute is not expressly preempted by the provision of the Airline Deregulation Act (“ADA”) (49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1)) that “prohibits states from enforcing any law ‘relating to rates, routes, or services’ of any air carrier,” Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 378-79 (1992), because the Connecticut statute does not “relate[] to rates, routes or services [of airlines],” Memorandum of Decision, p. 43; and (3) the Airport and Airway Improvement Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq. (“AAIA”), “does not impose any requirements or authorize the promulgation of federal regulations, unless funding is being sought,” Memorandum of Decision, p. 47.  

The Court’s decision contravenes the plain face of the FAA Act for the following reasons:  


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The Los Angeles Times reports that Uber, the ridesharing company, plans to extend its reach into the stratosphere by developing an “on-demand air transportation service.”  The plan appears to be that customers will use Uber’s surface transportation ride hailing system to hop a ride to a “vertiport” where an electrically powered aircraft will carry passengers to another vertiport at which they will be met by another phalanx of Uber drivers waiting to take otherwise stranded customers off the roofs of parking garages and into the traffic they supposedly avoided by using the proposed above ground transportation option.  

The purpose appears to be to allow customers to fly from one part of town to another.  Very creative, but shockingly absent all but one off-hand reference to the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), and the federal government’s total dominance over the airspace of the United States, 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a), including the design and construction of airports, which definition includes “vertiports.” 14 C.F.R. § 157.2. 
 
Whether recognized or not, Uber’s scheme faces a host of questions, and potential regulatory objections, that range from the way in which such episodic operations will merge with the arrival and departure paths of conventional aircraft, to the noise of even electric aircraft operating over existing residential neighbors and pedestrians using city streets.  While these are, to a large extent, the same issues posed by the operation of unmanned aircraft, or drones, they are even more immediate in this case, because the proposed electric aircraft are larger, potentially louder, and, perhaps most importantly, impinge on conventional aircraft regulatory areas long controlled by the FAA.


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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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In an unprecedented action aimed at limiting or eliminating noisy helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from use of the East Hampton Airport, in East Hampton, Long Island, New York (“Airport”), on April 6, 2015, the East Hampton Town Board, operator of the airport, imposed strict noise limits, including a curfew, on the hitherto largely unregulated Airport.  The greatest source of the problem that has generated a flood of local noise complaints appears to be the increasing helicopter traffic that ferries well-to-do city dwellers and LaGuardia and Kennedy passengers who live on Long Island to the beach community.  The noise has apparently increased with the imposition of a new rule by the FAA requiring helicopters to fly off the North Shore of Long Island, and cross Long Island at, and into, East Hampton on the South Shore.  The proposed regulatory protocol is dramatic.  


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An article of December 23, 2014 in a local East Hampton, New York newspaper, now circulated to a wider audience throughout the nation, gives the impression that, upon expiration of its contractual relationship on January 1, 2015, “East Hampton Town will be free of Federal Aviation Administration oversight and able to set access restrictions at the East Hampton Airport, essentially opening the door for relief from often loud, and sometimes rattling, aircraft noise.”  The article apparently misapprehends, and consequently, vastly overstates the impact of the expiration of the town’s contractual commitments to FAA, in return for funding of airport improvements.  The fact is that, with or without the constraints of such contractual commitments or “grant assurances,” the application of noise and access restrictions will depend entirely upon FAA’s determination concerning the applicability of a parallel set of constraints set forth in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”), which, in turn, will depend on the noise levels of the specific types of aircraft the airport wishes to control or eliminate.  

The newspaper article errs in at least two ways.
 


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In an unexpected turn of events, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has denied an application by Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”), under 14 C.F.R. Part 161 (“Part 161”), for approval of the nighttime noise mitigation procedure that requires both arrivals and departures to the west and over the Pacific Ocean from 12:00 midnight to 6:00 a.m. (“Application”).  The FAA’s decision was unexpected because the procedure has been in effect on an informal basis for almost 15 years.  LAWA sought FAA approval, pursuant to the requirements of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”) which requires, among other things, that any restriction on noise or access be approved by FAA or, in the alternative, all the airlines operating at the airport.  In addition, the filing of the Application was required by LAWA’s 2006 settlement with surrounding communities Inglewood, Culver City, El Segundo and the environmental group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.  

FAA’s denial was based on the Application’s purported noncompliance with three of the six conditions required by ANCA for approval of restrictions on Stage 3, “quieter” aircraft.  These include: (1) the restriction be reasonable, nonarbitrary, and nondiscriminatory; (2) the restriction not create an undue burden on interstate or foreign commerce; (3) the restriction not be inconsistent with maintaining the safe and efficient use of the navigable airspace; (4) the restriction not be in conflict with a law or regulation of the United States; (5) an adequate opportunity be provided for public comment on the restriction; and (6) the restriction not create an undue burden on the national aviation system.  49 U.S.C. § 47524.  
 
FAA’s decision comports with what appears to be its general policy of denying exemptions from ANCA’s stringent restrictions.  


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In a surprising decision, Surface Transportation Board Decision, Docket No. FD35861, December 12, 2014 (“Docket”), the Federal Surface Transportation Board (“Board”) ruled that the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq., to the 114 mile high-speed passenger rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield, California is preempted in its entirety by federal law.  The Board’s decision is not only surprising in the context of prevailing legal authority, but also potentially important in the context of other modes of transportation.  

The decision is surprising because it went far beyond the scope of the petition filed by the responsible State agency, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (“Authority”).  The Authority asked only that the Board find that injunctive relief as a remedy under CEQA is foreclosed as preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (“ICCTA”), Pub.L. 104–88, 104th Congress, and is, thus, barred under 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b) which gives the Board jurisdiction over “the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of spur, industrial, team, switching, or side tracks, or facilities, even if the tracks are located, or intended to be located, entirely in one State,” 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b)(2).  The Authority further argued that, as it had completed CEQA review in May 2014, the Board need not address whether CEQA is generally preempted, but need only address whether injunctive relief resulting in a work stoppage is available as a remedy in the lawsuits filed against the Authority.
 
Despite the Authority’s limited petition, the Board expanded its ruling to include a finding that § 10501(b) prevents the states and localities from intruding into matters that are “directly regulated by the Board (e.g., rail carrier rates, services, construction, and abandonment),” Docket, p. 8, and from “imposing requirements that, by their nature, could be used to deny a rail carrier’s ability to conduct rail operations.”  Id.  The Board employs the rationale that “Section 10501(b) [ ] is intended to prevent a patchwork of local regulation from unreasonably interfering with interstate commerce.”  Id.  
 
The Board recognizes, however, that “[n]ot all state and local regulations that affect rail carriers are preempted by § 10501(b).”  Id. at p. 9.  It acknowledges further that “State and local regulation is appropriate where it does not interfere with rail operations,” Id., and that “[l]ocalities retain their reserved police powers to protect the public health and safety so long as their actions do not unreasonably burden interstate commerce.”  Id.  
 
On that basis, and ignoring that “states and towns may exercise their traditional police powers . . . to the extent that the regulations ‘protect public health and safety, are settled and defined, can be obeyed with reasonable certainty, entail no extended or open-ended delays, and can be approved (or rejected) without the exercise of discretion on subjective questions,’” Id. citing Green Mountain v. Vermont, 404 F.3d 638, 643 (2nd Cir. 2005), the Board concluded that CEQA was categorically preempted as a “state preclearance requirement that, by its very nature, could be used to deny or significantly delay an entity’s right to construct a line that the Board has specifically authorized, thus impinging upon the Board’s exclusive jurisdiction over rail transportation,” Docket, p. 10, citing DesertXpress Enters., LLC-Pet. For Declaratory Order, slip op. at 5.  The Board further found that CEQA lawsuits “can regulate rail transportation just as effectively as a state statute or regulation.”  Id. at 14, citing, inter alia, Maynard v. CSX Transp., Inc., 360 F. Supp. 2d 836, 840 (E.D. Ky. 2004) [explaining that common law suits constitute regulations].  
 
The Board decision, however, appears to be based on two fundamental misconceptions. 
 


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In a rare showing of unanimity between airport operator and noise impacted community, on September 30, 2014 the Board of Supervisors of Orange County, California (“Board”) approved the extension, for an additional 15 years, of a long-standing set of noise restrictions on the operation of John Wayne Airport (“Airport”), of which the Board is also the operator.  Those restrictions include: (1) limitation on the number of the noisiest aircraft that can operate at the Airport; (2) limitation on the number of passengers that can use the Airport annually; (3) limitation on the number of aircraft loading bridges; and, perhaps most important, (4) limitation on the hours of aircraft operation (10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on Sundays).   

The restrictions were originally imposed in settlement of a lawsuit in 1986, between the Board, the neighboring City of Newport Beach and two environmental organizations, the Airport Working Group of Orange County, Inc. and Stop Polluting Our Newport.  The obvious question is whether similar restrictions might be achieved at other airports today. The not so obvious answer is that such a resolution is far more difficult now, but not impossible.
 


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