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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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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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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A recent analysis of the relationship of airline mergers to airline service and pricing reports the unsurprising result that, since the mergers of Southwest Airlines and AirTran, United Airlines and Continental Airlines, and Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines, airline capacity measured by the number of available seats, has gone down across the board at the top 100 airports in the 48 contiguous states since 2005 while prices have increased equally broadly.  For example, at the largest airport in the United States, Atlanta-Hartsfield, the number of seats has fallen by 12.3%, while the average fare price has increased by 3.7%.  Similarly, at Boston Logan, the number of seats has dropped by 10%, while the fares have increased at an average of 2.2%.  Those changes, moreover, are not limited to the top 100 airports.  At secondary airports in metropolitan areas with multiple airports, the same trend persists.  At Oakland Airport in the San Francisco Bay area, fares have increased 6%.  And those ominous trends appear to continue.

In response to the proposal of a merger between American Airlines and U.S. Airways, the Justice Department promptly brought suit on the grounds of, among other things, restraint of trade and violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  Last week, the Justice Department settled with the airlines on the promise by the airlines to surrender gates and slots at major airports. 
 


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During the past week, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has taken two actions likely to elicit “equal and opposite reactions” from the aviation community specifically, and the American public in general.  On the positive end of the spectrum lies FAA’s approval of a presumed cure for the dramatic malfunctions of the lithium ion batteries installed by the Boeing Company in place of the hydraulic system in the company’s 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.  This “fix” will allow Boeing to begin deliveries of the aircraft again after an FAA mandated hiatus since January 16, 2013.  At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum lies FAA’s decision to begin the furloughing of air traffic controllers, a move that has already precipitated the filing of petitions with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by, among others, the aviation trade group for the nation’s airlines, Airlines for America, the Airline Pilots Association, and the Regional Airline Association.


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Trucking industry challenges to the Port of Los Angeles’ pollution rules for trucks carrying cargo to and from the Port (“Clean Truck Program”) have hit the United States Supreme Court.  The Court has agreed to accept certiorari to decide whether the rules that require, among other things, that trucking firms enter into agreements with the Port Authority of Los Angeles (“Port Authority”) to govern regular maintenance of trucks, off-street parking, and posting of identifying information are an unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce.  Perhaps most contentious is the requirement that, ultimately, all truck operators must become employees of trucking companies, rather than acting as independent contractors. 

The American Trucking Association originally challenged the Clean Truck Program on the grounds of a Federal law deregulating and preempting local authority “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier.”  49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1).  Although the Port Authority has had surprising success in the lower courts thus far, the preemption provision relied upon by the trucking industry bears a substantial similarity, even identity, with the provisions in the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101, et seq. (“ADA”), which has rarely been successfully challenged.
 


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Yet another project at Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”) has skated under the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The project, the “American Airlines Commuter Facility Improvement Project,” allegedly constitutes a mere replacement of the facilities once occupied by United Airlines. Not exactly. The project actually includes, but is not limited to: (1) more than doubling the size of the passenger terminal/administration building to add passenger accommodations and office space; (2) addition of an almost 10,000 square foot building for baggage handling, office space and storage; and (3) replacement of a remote gate, accessed by foot or bus, with an enclosed contact gate such as those which are used inside the main terminals.

Despite the expansionary nature of the project, Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”), the Department of the owner, City of Los Angeles, responsible for operating LAX does not give so much as a passing nod to compliance with CEQA. If the project could simply be described as “new lease with American Airlines,” as a recent “Transmittal for Review of LAX Tenant Improvement Project” would have the public believe, the omission to conduct environmental review might be justified by a categorical exclusion from CEQA, 14 Cal. Code Regs. section 15301. That exclusion, however, does not apply here. The project, far from being “negligible” in scope, clearly constitutes a massive expansion of the previous passenger hold room and other passenger serving facilities.
 


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The City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”) went on record yet again, rebuffing a cooperative effort between the City of Ontario (“Ontario”) and County of San Bernardino (“San Bernardino”) to promote growth at Ontario International Airport (“ONT”). The Los Angeles City Council formally voted to oppose SB466, introduced earlier this year by Senator Bob Dutton, which would allow for structured negotiations regarding the transfer of ONT to a newly formed joint powers agency comprised of Ontario and San Bernardino. The rationale for the legislation is that ONT has proportionally suffered the worst loss of passengers and airline operations of any airport in the Southern California region, and that a shift to local control is needed to restart what had previously been considered the economic engine for the Inland Empire.


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Under the 1985 John Wayne Airport Stipulated Settlement Agreement, as amended in 2003, regularly scheduled commercial users operating at JWA shall not serve more than 10.3 million annual passengers in any year beginning on January 1, 2003 through December 31, 2010, and not more than 10.8 MAP beginning on January 1, 2011 through December 15, 2015. To maintain passenger traffic within those limits, and to balance the needs of the Orange County community for adequate commercial air transportation facilities and the desire of the local community for environmentally responsible air transportation operations at JWA, the County, in its capacity as proprietor and operator of JWA, imposed noise restrictions; implemented Permitted Commercial Operations Hours (commonly referred to as a “curfew”); and adopted limits on the noise levels of aircraft operating at JWA, and the number of passengers those aircraft could accommodate in any year.


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