While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences.  The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation. 

Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1.  He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.”  On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations.  Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument. 
 

Continue Reading Decision in Pirker Case Invokes Specter of Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

In an exercise of regulatory zeal, El Paso County, Colorado (“County”) now requires that City owned Colorado Springs Airport (“Airport”) obtain a permit from the County for any changes in airport physical development or operations that might affect nearby property located in the County. 

Purportedly under the authority of the Colorado Areas and Activities of State Interest Act, § 24-65-101, et seq., the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) “has specific authority to consider and designate matters of state interest . . . and to adopt guidelines and regulations for administration of areas and activities of state interest. . .”  Pursuant to that purported authority, by Resolution No. 13-267, June 6, 2013, and recorded at Reception No. 213077196 of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, “the Board designated certain areas and activities of state interest” and established “a permit process for development in certain areas of state interest,” Resolution No. 13-530, Resolution Amending Guidelines and Regulations for Areas and Activities of State Interest of El Paso County, and designating additional matters of state interest.  December 17, 2013.  The new areas of state interest designated in the Resolution include: “site selection and expansion of airports,” Resolution, p. 3, § 1.  The County has interpreted the permit process to extend to “runway extension, noise and other impacts that might affect property owners . . .,” Gazette, January 17, 2014, quoting Mark Gebhart, Deputy Director of County Development Services Department. 

Therein lies the rub. 
 

Continue Reading El Paso County Seeks Control Over Colorado Springs Airport

On January 31, 2013, the Cities of Mukilteo and Edmonds, Washington, and concerned citizens and organizations in the vicinity of Paine/Boeing Field, Everett, Washington (“Petitioners”) filed a “Petition for Review of Agency Order,” challenging the adequacy of the Environmental Assessment (“EA”) for the conversion of Paine Field from a proprietary facility to a commercial airport. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has published in the Federal Register an “Invitation to Comment on Draft FAA Order 5100-38, Airport Improvement Program Handbook” (“Draft AIP Handbook”). 

The Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) is an airport grant program, pursuant to Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq. (“AAIA”).  The Draft AIP Handbook contains regulations implementing the AIP.  This updated version incorporates substantial changes to the governing statutes, including the recently enacted FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. 

While FAA usually does not solicit comments on what it calls “internal orders” (claiming that the Draft AIP Handbook “contains instructions to FAA employees on implementing the AIP”), FAA recognizes the broad impacts of the Draft AIP Handbook, and the impact on all segments of the airport community of its implementation.  Therefore, FAA is accepting comments until March 18, 2013. 
 

Continue Reading FAA Issues Draft Revisions to the Airport Improvement Program Handbook

It has come to our attention that a legal colleague has authored a blog analogizing the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the Obama Administration’s health care legislation (“Obamacare”), National Federation of Independent Business, et al. v. Sebelius, et al., 567 U.S. ___ (2012), to the Federal statutes preempting state and local control of the regulation of aircraft operations and their free and open access to airports.  The blog attempts to make the case that, because the Court ruled that the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution does not justify requiring all uninsured Americans to purchase health insurance, so the Commerce Clause somehow cannot justify exclusive Federal regulation of the “safety of navigable airspace,” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a), and airlines “rates, routes and charges,” 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1).  This analysis not only manifestly misapprehends the clear distinction between the two cases, but can also send a damaging message to those who justifiably seek legally supportable means of controlling airport impacts. 

Continue Reading Make No Mistake: The Supreme Court’s Decision on Obamacare Has No Impact on Applicable Aviation and Airport Law

On May 17, 2012, FAA published in the Federal Register a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM); Reopening of Comment Period” for “Rules of Practice for Federally Assisted Airport Enforcement Proceedings (Retrospective Regulatory Review)” first published in March, 2012.  In plain language, FAA is making substantial changes to the procedures for bringing a challenge to airports’ compliance with FAA grant assurances under 14 C.F.R. Part 16.  “Grant assurances” are those commitments made by airport sponsors in return for receipt of federal funding of airport projects, as required by 49 U.S.C. § 47107.  Any changes in the procedures for enforcing grant assurances are of significant interest not only to the airports, which may benefit from a relaxation in the procedures for challenging their actions, but also to airport users, such as fixed-base operators (“FBO”), airlines, and other airport related businesses.  The proposed changes are broad in scope and purportedly made for the purpose of, among other things, becoming consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. 

Continue Reading FAA Reopens Comment Period on Massive Changes to the Part 16 Adjudication Process

On April 13, 2012, as a result of the February 14, 2012 passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) proposed modifications to the “grant assurances” incorporated into FAA’s contracts with airports that receive FAA funding for physical improvements and/or noise compatibility purposes.  These changes were made in order to ensure the consistency of the grant contracts with the changes arising out of FMRA.  The revisions primarily address three categories of actions: (1) permission for “through the fence” operations under specified conditions; (2) exceptions to current restrictions on use of airport revenues; and (3) revision to rules governing use of revenues gained from disposal of airport property subsidized by FAA. 

Continue Reading The FAA Proposes Changes to its Funding Contracts with Airports

On March 20, 2012, in a far reaching opinion, the California Appellate Court for the Second District incurred into the territory usually occupied by the Federal Courts of Appeals, by holding that Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) safety standards, published in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-13 (“Advisory Circular”) do not preempt state tort law on the standard of care applicable to utilization of an airport’s “Runway Protection Zone” (“RPZ”). 

The case, Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. v. County of Ventura, 2012 WL 920322 (Cal.App.2 Dist.)), concerns damage to an aircraft owned by Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. (“Sierra”), allegedly caused by a barrier erected within the RPZ at Camarillo Municipal Airport.  The airport, owned and operated by Ventura County (“County”), erected the barrier for the apparent purpose of preventing runway incursions by police vehicles leasing space in part of the RPZ at the airport.  The trial court upheld the County’s motion in limine to exclude evidence of state safety standards relating to “airport design and construction,” on the ground that Federal standards in the Advisory Circular preempt state tort law on the standard of care.  The trial court’s holding was based on the Federal government’s “implied preemption” of safety standards at airports, and, thus, the foreclosure of Sierra’s negligence action based on a dangerous condition of public property under state tort law.  Cal. Gov. Code § 835.  The Appellate Court reversed on the ground that “Congress has not enacted an express preemption provision for FAA safety standards” and, thus, if preemption exists, it must be implied.  The Appellate Court’s decision is flawed for at least two reasons. 
 

Continue Reading A California Appellate Court Puts a Fence Around Federal Preemption of Airport Safety Standards

Exemption of NextGen procedures from environmental review is not the only issue raised by the FAA Reauthorization legislation set to be approved by the United States Senate on Monday, February 6 at 5:30 p.m. EST.  Section 505 of the Conference Version of the Bill allows a public entity taking private residential properties by eminent domain for airport purposes to pay the value of the property after its value has been diminished by the pendency of the project itself, and by any delay by the public entity in purchasing the property.  In other words, the Congress is overriding the long held judicial precept that “temporary takings are as protected by the Constitution as are permanent ones.”  See, e.g., First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. Los Angeles County, California, 482 U.S. 304, 318 (1987).

Continue Reading FAA Reauthorization Act Changes Rules for Valuation of Residential Properties