Under federal law, airport operators that have accepted federal grants or have obligations contained in property deeds for property transferred under laws such as the Surplus Property Act generally may use airport property only for aviation-related purposes unless otherwise approved by the FAA.  Specifically, the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982 (AAIA) (Pub. L. 97–248), as amended and recodified at 49 United States Codes (U.S.C.) 47107(a)(1), and the contractual sponsor assurances require that the airport sponsor make the airport available for aviation use.  Grant Assurance 22, Economic Nondiscrimination, requires the sponsor to make the airport available on reasonable terms without unjust discrimination for aeronautical activities, including aviation services.  Grant Assurance 19, Operation and Maintenance, prohibits an airport sponsor from causing or permitting any activity that would interfere with use of airport property for airport purposes.  In some cases, sponsors who have received property transfers through surplus property and nonsurplus property agreements have similar federal obligations.

With increasing frequency, airports are allowing non-aeronautical storage or uses in hangars intended for aeronautical use, which the FAA has found to interfere with or entirely displace aeronautical use of the hangar.  Case in point: Car and Driver has recently featured articles about the superiority of airport hangars as “garages” for serious car enthusiasts.  This should be a red flag for airports, which stand to lose significant AIP funds for allowing on-airport hangars to lapse into non-aeronautical use.
 
There is only one solution to this problem, and it is something every federally-obligated airport should do to protect its AIP funds…


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Predictably, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has weighed in strongly in opposition to the City of Santa Monica’s (“City”) plan to close the Santa Monica Airport (“Airport”) within the next two years.  The City, owner and operator of the Airport, plans to begin the process of closure, including cancellation and/or modification of leases held by various aeronautical service providers, such as providers of fuel, maintenance and hangar storage.  Those Airport incumbents are already paying rent on a month-to-month basis, subject to summary eviction. 

The apparent basis of Santa Monica’s position is that: (1) its obligation to maintain the airport is based solely on the terms of its contract with FAA for the provision of funding; and (2) according to its terms, that contract expires 20 years after the FAA’s last grant of funding.
 
The FAA’s position, obviously, differs dramatically.  The agency claims that, according to the terms of a $240,000 federal grant to the City in 2003, the City is obligated to keep the Airport open until at least 2023, see, e.g., FAA Order 5190.6B, Chapter 4, §§ 4.6.h(1) and (2).  Moreover, the FAA asserts that, under the terms of the transfer agreement governing the transfer of the airport property from the military back to the City after World War II, the City is obligated to keep the Airport open in perpetuity.
 


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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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On November 7, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published its “Final Policy Amendment” (“Amendment”) to its “Policy and Procedures Concerning the Use of Airport Revenue,” first published 15 years ago in the Federal Register at 64 Fed.Reg. 7696, February 16, 1999 (“Revenue Use Policy”).  The Amendment formally adopts FAA’s interpretation of the Federal requirements for use of revenue derived from taxes including sales taxes on aviation fuel imposed by both airport sponsors and governmental agencies, local and State, that are non-airport operators. 

In brief, the FAA concludes that “an airport operator or State government submitting an application under the Airport Improvement Program must provide assurance that revenues from State and local government taxes on aviation fuel will be used for certain aviation-related purposes.”  79 Fed.Reg. 66283.  Predictably, FAA received 25 substantive comments from a diverse group of interested parties, including airport operators, industry and nonprofit associations representing airports, air carriers, business aviation and airport service businesses, air carriers, state government agencies, and private citizens.  For example, in response to the airports’ and governments’ comments that airport sponsors would find it impossible to provide assurance that other governmental agencies would comply with the revenue use statutes for the life of the Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) grant, and that airports should not be required to agree to a condition compliance with which they have no control, FAA takes the position that Federal statute 49 U.S.C. §§ 47107(b) and 47133 already require this level of control from local proprietors.  This is because “[t]he grant assurances provided by airport sponsors include Grant Assurance 25, which provides, in relevant part: ‘All revenues generated by the airport and any local taxes on aviation fuel established after December 30, 1987, will be expended by it for the capital or operating costs of the airport; the local airport system; or other facilities which are owned and operated by the owner and operator of the airport. . .’” 79 Fed.Reg. 66284.  The FAA further concludes that airport sponsors often have influence on the taxation of aviation activities in their States and localities, and the FAA expects airport sponsors to use that influence to shape State and non-sponsor local taxation to conform to these Federal laws.  Id.  Moreover, FAA asserts its power to pursue enforcement action against non-sponsor entities for the purposes of limiting the use of aviation tax revenues under 49 U.S.C. §§ 46301, 47133 and 47111(f). 
 


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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. 


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