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.
On or about November 16, 2017, the United States Senate acted speedily to pass the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018,” H.R. 2810 (“Defense Reauthorization Act”), originally introduced in January of 2017, and now awaiting signing by President Trump.
Up against a September 30th deadline for the passage of legislation before its recess, Congressman Bud Shuster introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (“21st Century AIRR Act” or “Act”), H.R. 2997. Although somewhat obscured by its name and size (in excess of 200 pages), one of the central points of the Bill is the transfer of air traffic control responsibility from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to a private sector corporation (“Corporation), i.e., privatization of the air traffic control system. The Bill betrays the speed of its development through its lack of specificity on a number of critical issues.
On January 17, 2017, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 5, the “Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017.” Buried deep within its pages is Title II, the “Separation of Powers Restoration Act.” That title, although only two sections long, dramatically changes the legal landscape for challenges to the actions of federal regulatory agencies. Currently, in adjudicating challenges to administrative rulemaking and implementing actions, the federal courts invoke the precedent established in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 844 (1984). In that case, the Supreme Court held: “We have long recognized that considerable weight should be accorded to an executive department’s construction of a statutory scheme it is entrusted to administer…” In adopting Chevron, the Supreme Court effectively gives administrative agencies almost complete deference, not only in the interpretation of the regulations they implemented, but also, and more controversially, in the way the agencies carry out the mandates of those regulations. Thus, challengers seeking to use the judicial system to point out and rectify what are perceived as misapplication of the regulations, butt up against the reluctance of the courts to question or interfere with the agency’s construction of the regulation or the evidence and its application in carrying out the agency’s order. In Title II, the Congress has stood the current deferential standard on its head.
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.
California Legislators Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of Burbank achieved the seemingly impossible in Congress’ January 14 passage of the $1.012 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, H.R. 3547 (“Appropriations Act”). The Appropriations Act contains a provision, § 119D, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to achieve reductions in helicopter noise throughout the Los Angeles Basin by 2015. That section specifies certain voluntary measures, which, if unsuccessful in achieving the desired reductions within one year, must give way to FAA regulations to achieve the stated purposes.
Specifically, § 119D mandates that:
“The Secretary shall (1) evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles, and make adjustments to such routes if the adjustments would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks; (2) analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles County; (3) develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news gathering; (4) conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and to increase awareness of noise sensitive areas and events; (5) work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system; and (6) continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators: Provided, That not later than one year after enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall begin a regulatory process related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the Secretary can demonstrate significant progress in undertaking the actions required under the previous proviso.”
Although a seeming triumph for noise impacted communities, the Appropriations Act is neither an unalloyed victory nor does it set a precedent for future legislative initiatives for the following reasons:
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.