The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, passed by the United States Senate on April 19, 2016, and previously reported on in this publication, contains another provision that merits comment. Section 2506, “Airspace Management Advisory Committee” was introduced by Senators McCain and Flake of Arizona, purportedly to provide a communication channel between the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and the public concerning FAA programs for redesign of regional airspace over major public airports.
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.
On August 19, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published a proposed rule regarding “Implementation of Legislative Categorical Exclusion for Environmental Review of Performance Based Navigation Procedures,” 79 Fed.Reg. 49141 (“CATEX Rule”) to implement the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95 (“FRMA”), § 213, directing FAA “to issue and file a categorical exclusion for any navigation performance or other performance based navigation (PBN) procedure that would result in measureable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise on a per flight basis as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace.” 79 Fed.Reg. 41941.
Inspired by Congressional intervention, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has begun the process of revising and reorganizing FAA Order 1050.1E, “Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” in a new Order, 1050.1F (by the same name). 78 Fed.Reg. 49596-49600 (August 14, 2013). That in itself would not be particularly notable, except for the importance of the changes that are being made, and their significance for both airport operators and the communities around airports that are the direct recipients of both the disbenefit of the environmental impacts of airport projects, and the potential benefit of the adequate environmental review of those impacts.
The most important of the potential revisions to Order 1050.1E involves FAA’s relief from the burdens of environmental review granted by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 658 (112th) (“FMRA”). Specifically, two legislatively created categorical exclusions are added in 1050.1F, paragraphs 5-6.5q and 5-6.5r, Exemption from NEPA Review which basically give a free pass to changes to air traffic procedures throughout the country.
In a surprising climax to the long controversy concerning helicopter flights and attendant noise impacts on the North Shore communities of New York’s Suffolk County, the FAA, on July 6, issued a “Final Rule,” making mandatory the current voluntary flight path for helicopters one mile offshore, but allowing the “Final Rule” to sunset on August 6, 2014, two years from the effective date, “unless the FAA determines a permanent rule is merited.” The route commences 20 miles northeast of LaGuardia, near Huntington, New York, and remains approximately one mile offshore until reaching Orient Point, near the eastern end of Long Island, with deviations allowed for safety reasons, and to allow helicopters to transit over land to reach their ultimate destinations.
The FAA discloses that its decision to promulgate the original voluntary rule arose from the numerous complaints of noise from helicopter overflights brought to its attention by Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Representative Tim Bishop of Long Island’s North Shore in October, 2007. The subsequent mandatory rule apparently resulted from continued political pressure by residents who are “unbearably and negatively” impacted, particularly during the summer months when the number of helicopters, as well as deviations from the voluntary routing, seem to increase dramatically. The real surprises in the “Final Rule,” however, are FAA’s rationale for: (1) making the route mandatory, a rationale which seems to apply equally to currently voluntarily procedures at other airports; and (2) the Rule’s sunset provision.
Challengers to the determinations of Federal agencies do not go to court on a level playing field with their governmental adversaries. Federal courts have long taken the position that deference is properly accorded to an agency making decisions within its area of technical expertise. That position may now be changing, at least with respect to two specific sets of legal circumstances.
On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania and its partners County of Delaware, Pennsylvania; Thomas J. Giancristoforo; and David McCann (“Petitioners”) took their grievances with the ongoing expansion project at Philadelphia International Airport (“PHL”) to the 3rd Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Petitioners, made up of communities and residents surrounding the airport, expressed their concern with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) often-ignored failure to adequately disclose and analyze the project’s air quality and land use impacts.
Relying most heavily on consistent objections to the project by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) the Federal agency delegated by Congress with the power to promulgate and enforce regulations governing Clean Air Act compliance, Petitioners asserted that their claims are based on: (1) FAA’s failure to comply with the disclosure and analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq., (“NEPA”); (2) the EPA’s right to receive deference from the Court to its negative views of the project because, in the 3rd Circuit, “deference follows delegation,” see, e.g., Chao v. Community Trust Company, 474 F.3d 75, 85 (3rd Cir. 2007); and (3) FAA’s violation of the Airport Airway Improvement Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq., (“AAIA”) requirement that airport projects be reasonably consistent with the existing plans of jurisdictions authorized by the State in which the airport is located to plan for the development of the area surrounding the airport. 49 U.S.C. § 47106(a)(1). FAA disagreed with Petitioners’ assertions of deference and claimed that they had complied with the AAIA by relying on the plans of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. (See Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 2012 and Delaware County Daily Times, March 7, 2012 for catalog of FAA arguments.)
The three judge panel expressed satisfaction with the scope of the oral argument, but is not subject to any specific time period within which to render its decision.
As we reported yesterday in our blog titled “FAA Reauthorization Act Exempts Next Generation Airspace Redesign Projects from Environmental Review,” Congress is set to act on the conference version of H.R. 658 (“Act”), a Bill the nominal purpose of which is to fund the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) for 2011-2014, a task Congress has been unable or unwilling to accomplish for the last two years.
The legislation goes far beyond funding, however. Toward another stated purpose – to “streamline programs” – the Act sets out the parameters for establishment and operation of FAA’s Next Generation Transportation System (“NextGen”). Not stopping there, it also “creates efficiencies” by exempting the NextGen program from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), Act, § 213. Thus, whole communities around at least 30 “core” airports might be newly impacted by aircraft overflights seemingly without the opportunity for public review and comment before the NextGen project is implemented, and without an avenue of leverage in the courts afterwards. All is not yet lost, however.
In a monument to political deal making, the United States Congress is today considering, in the House and Senate Aviation Committees, the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012," H.R. 658 ("Act") to, among other things, "authorize appropriations to the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal years 2011-2014 . . ." It is, however, the other provisions of the legislation which most profoundly affect the public.
Purportedly to "streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste and improve safety and capacity," the most recent version of the Act to emerge from the House-Senate Conference Committee exempts all new area navigation ("RNAV") and required navigation performance ("RNP") procedures, which collectively comprise the "Next Generation Air Transportation System" ("NextGen"), Act § 201, Definitions, from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. ("NEPA").
The Act, generally, mandates that all "navigation performance and area navigation procedures developed, certified, published or implemented under this section [Section 213] shall be presumed to be covered by a categorical exclusion (as defined in § 1508.4 of Title 40, C.F.R.) under Chapter 3 of FAA Order 1050.1E, unless the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure." Act, § 213(c)(1).
The Act expands on this mandate in § (c)(2). "NEXTGEN PROCEDURES – Any navigation performance or other performance based navigation procedure developed, certified, published or implemented that, in the determination of the Administrator, would result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise, on a per flight basis, as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace, shall be presumed to have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment and the Administrator shall issue and file a categorical exclusion for the new procedure."