Airport Noise and Capacity Act

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 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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On December 4, 2013, Representative Joseph Crowley of a district in the Bronx and Queens, New York, heavily impacted by operations at LaGuardia Airport, introduced the “Quiet Skies Act” (H.R. 3650).  Supported by a variety of Congresspersons from other similarly impacted districts, the Act requires passenger airlines to replace or retrofit 25% of their fleets every five years until 2035 to meet a “Stage 4” standard, approximately 10 decibels lower than currently approved “Stage 3” engines. 

The conversion mandated by the Act might seem to result in significant relief to populations impacted by frequent overflights of Stage 3 aircraft.  There are, however, at least two conditions significantly vitiating the Act’s impacts. 
 


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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. 

While its zeal to protect its citizens from the noise and emissions of aircraft arriving and departing Santa Monica Airport is commendable and understandable, the Santa Monica Airport Commission’s method is questionable.  That is because its recently proposed proportional limitation on aircraft operations (i.e., a limit on future operations at some percent of current operations) appears to be contrary to Federal law.

More specifically, in a Memorandum of on or about August 2, 2012, the Airport Commission proposed a hypothetical restriction whereby “the number of daily operations would be limited to [approximately] 53% of the daily operations from prior years . . . For example, if there were 100 operations on June 6, 2012, then no more than 53 operations would be allowed on June 6, 2013.”  The Vice Chairman of the Airport Commission argues that, because the proposed restriction does not discriminate between aircraft types (as a prior proposed Santa Monica ordinance limiting operations by jet aircraft did), it would withstand judicial scrutiny.  The Commission has apparently forgotten about the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”), and its prohibition on the imposition of noise or access restrictions without approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). 
 


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On July 26, 2012, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania overturned a Pennsylvania statute preempting the right of local jurisdictions to impose land use restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” within their boundaries.  Unlike courts in the States of Ohio and Colorado, the court in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al., 2012 WL 3030277 (2012) held that the Pennsylvania statute violates the “basic precept that ‘land use restrictions designate districts in which only compatible uses are allowed and incompatible uses are excluded.’”  Id. at 15, quoting City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, Inc., 514 U.S. 725, 732-33 (1995).  Fracking involves the high pressure injection of water and sand carrying certain chemicals into rocks in which is concealed deposits of oil and gas.  Residents near fracking sites have complained of, among other things, pollution of the underground water supply, and increasing instability and subsidence of structures undermined by the process.  Supporters of the Pennsylvania law claimed that it provides the uniformity of regulation necessary for the successful continuation of Pennsylvania’s relatively new and profitable fracking industry.  Critics, however, take the position that removing local restrictions on the fracking would be to undermine decades of rational development, and open the door to the “pig in the parlor” to which the Supreme Court referred in upholding local zoning originally in Euclid v. Ambler, 272 U.S. 365 (1926).

The implication of these differences ranges far beyond Pennsylvania, because, among other reasons, the positions taken over local regulation of fracking do not differ notably from those taken with respect to local regulation of airport impacts.
 


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The recently published Southern California Association of Governments (“SCAG”) Draft Regional Transportation Plan 2012-2035, Sustainable Communities Strategy (“Draft RTP”) is a study in contrasts. The Draft RTP is meant to be a roadmap to “increasing mobility for the region’s residents and visitors.” Draft RTP, p. 1. Its “vision” purportedly “encompasses three principles that collectively work as the key to our region’s future: mobility, economy and sustainability.” Draft RTP, p. 1. SCAG’s jurisdiction falls largely into compartments: (1) surface transportation such as roadways and rail; and (2) aviation. SCAG has funding authority over the former, but none over the latter.

The purpose of the Draft RTP is to portray transportation from a broader regional, rather than merely local, perspective. On the one hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of surface transportation growth estimates, trends and proposed policies for the Southern California Region to the year 2035 contains relatively sophisticated and substantially complete analysis and projections that meet its goals. On the other hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of aviation trends and policies for meeting airport demand is reminiscent of a high school science project.
 


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Noise abatement procedures are only effective if they are used. Noise impacted communities are frequently heard to complain that, despite the complex, time consuming and expensive process needed to develop and implement noise abatement procedures at airports, either through the FAA’s Part 150 process, or through other airport specific processes, airlines seem to ignore them. The rationale often provided is that each airline is entitled to develop and implement its own flight procedures, some, but not all of which incorporate the specified noise abatement procedures. This situation was exacerbated in 1990 when the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., took noise abatement policy making out of the hands of local airports and placed approval authority exclusively in the hands of the FAA.

A deceptively simple solution to this pervasive problem of airlines non-uniform observance of airport specific noise abatement policies has been developed by a small, new company in Truckee, California, Whispertrack.
 


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