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.
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.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has published in the Federal Register an “Invitation to Comment on Draft FAA Order 5100-38, Airport Improvement Program Handbook” (“Draft AIP Handbook”).
The Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) is an airport grant program, pursuant to Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq. (“AAIA”). The Draft AIP Handbook contains regulations implementing the AIP. This updated version incorporates substantial changes to the governing statutes, including the recently enacted FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
While FAA usually does not solicit comments on what it calls “internal orders” (claiming that the Draft AIP Handbook “contains instructions to FAA employees on implementing the AIP”), FAA recognizes the broad impacts of the Draft AIP Handbook, and the impact on all segments of the airport community of its implementation. Therefore, FAA is accepting comments until March 18, 2013.
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.
The permanent closure or “deactivation” of an underutilized public use airport has gained increasing traction among revenue starved airport sponsors, as well as disparate responses from affected parties. Operators seek to save the drain on diminishing budgets; residential communities surrounding the airport hope for relief from the airport’s impacts; and the pilot community sees its access to the dwindling number of general aviation facilities shrinking further. Whatever the rationale, the operator seeking to close and reuse an airport for non-aviation purposes, that has at any time accepted funds from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), faces substantial regulatory hurdles and complex procedural requirements.