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.


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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.


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In a somewhat ironic twist on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) usual position, on March 26, 2018, FAA ruled in favor of the Town of East Hampton, New York (“Town”), proprietor of the East Hampton Airport, in a challenge by the National Business Aviation Association (“NBAA”) under FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. Part 16, to the expenditure of airport revenues in defense of the Town’s self-imposed airport noise and access restrictions.

The origin of that determination is equally anomalous.  In or about 2015, the Town enacted three local laws limiting aircraft noise at the airport, including restriction on: (1) access by “noisy” aircraft to only one arrival and departure per week; (2) mandatory nighttime curfew from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.; and (3) an extended curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. on “noisy” aircraft.  
 
These local restrictions, however, directly contravene federal law set forth in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”) which has, since 1990, affirmatively preempted local laws which impose: “(A) a restriction on noise levels generated on either a single event or cumulative basis; . . . (D) a restriction on hours of operation.”  49 U.S.C. § 47524(c)(A) and (D).  Predictably, East Hampton’s local regulations were successfully challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  Ultimately, the Petition for Writ of Certiorari, seeking to overturn the Second Circuit’s determination, brought by the Town in the United States Supreme Court, was met with an equal lack of success, despite the Town’s powerful ally, the City of New York.  
 
Apparently, in a last ditch attempt to thwart any future initiatives to enact similar restrictions, the NBAA brought its fight to the FAA.  The gravamen of NBAA’s challenge was the Town’s alleged violation of its contractual obligation (as airport operator) to FAA pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 47107(k), prohibiting “illegal diversion of airport revenue.”  That section includes, among other things, “(A) direct payments or indirect payments, other than payments reflecting the value of services and facilities provided to the airport.”  49 U.S.C. § 47107(k)(2)(A), see also 49 U.S.C. § 47017(b).  
 


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Many in the aviation community have been monitoring the progress of Chicago’s efforts to privatize Midway International Airport (MDW) under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport Privatization Pilot Program. The City faces a July 31, 2010 deadline to either select a private operator for MDW or seek an extension of the City’s slot in the Program from the FAA. Chicago is the only approved applicant for the Program’s only large-hub slot. If the application is approved, MDW would be the first privatized large-hub airport in the U.S. 

The Airport Privatization Pilot Program was established in 1996 by Section 149 of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act, which added a new Section 47134 to Title 49 of the U.S. Code. Section 47134 authorizes the Secretary of Transportation and, through delegation, the FAA Administrator, to exempt a sponsor of a public use airport that has received Federal assistance from certain Federal requirements in connection with the privatization of the airport by sale or lease to a private party.


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If you own a commercial airport that has accepted federal grants and you have sold all or part of the airport’s property, you, no doubt are aware of the provisions of 49 U.S.C. § 47107(l)(5)(A). That provision of the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act of 1996, as amended, limits any request to recoup capital an operating costs from the sale of airport property to those expenses that occurred within 6 years after the expense has been incurred: 

any request by a sponsor or any other governmental entity to any airport for additional payments for services conducted off of the airport or for reimbursement for capital contributions or operating expenses shall be filed not later than 6 years after the date on which the expense is incurred

49 U.S.C. § 47107(l)(5)(A). That new terminal that the City spent $1 million out of its General Fund on seven years ago? According to § 47107(l)(5)(A), you cannot recoup the expense now. Those operating deficits that the airport has been running for the past ten years that the City has covered? Only the last six years can be recouped. Although you may not be planning on selling all or part of the airport now, or even five years from now, it makes sense, because of § 47107(l)(5)(A) to ensure that the owner’s expenses are currently being paid by the airport by requesting reimbursement on a timely basis.


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