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.
The integration of cutting-edge aviation technology such as commercial drones and the modernization of our national airspace system are just a couple of the pressing aviation issues hanging in the balance this summer as Congress seeks common ground on FAA Reauthorization legislation.
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 October 1, 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) adopted stricter regulation on ozone emissions that will fall heavily on California, and most particularly on the transportation sector, including airlines. The new standard strengthens limits on ground level ozone to 70 parts per billion (“PPB”), down from 75 PPB adopted in 2008. The EPA’s action arises from the mandate of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), from which the EPA derives its regulatory powers, 42 U.S.C. § 7409(a)(1), and which requires that pollution levels be set so as to protect public health with an “adequate margin of safety. 42 U.S.C. § 7409(b).
In a strange twist on the normal relationship between federal regulatory agencies, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has found the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) a primary culprit in the October 31, 2014 disastrous test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, in which one of the two pilots was killed, and debris was spread over a 33 mile area in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April. Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use. Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports. However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.
Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations. This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States.
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
On October 24, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) published its final rule documenting the failure of the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) to submit a State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) revision containing measures to control California’s significant contribution to the nonattainment, or interference with maintenance, of the 2006 24 hour fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) in other states (“Interstate Transport SIP”).