44-Years and Counting: FAA’s Gross Failure of the ‘Noise Control Act of 1972’

Check out the recent thought-provoking Posts by attorney Stephen Taber, blogged at Aviation and Airport Development News. Mr. Taber is a former FAA attorney who has been blogging since at least 2007. A closer look at his blog suggests he is a rare combination: an aviation lawyer who actually cares! Is it possible, that he cares about things that really matter these days …

  1. …the protection of the environment, and…
  2. …the empowerment of people so they are meaningfully engaged in making airport decisions?

I hope so. And, thanks for your web work, Mr. Taber!

(click on image to view latest Posts at 'Aviation & Airport Development News')

(click on image to view latest Posts at ‘Aviation & Airport Development News’)

Taber Law Group has been added as an aiREFORM link, in the category ‘Links – Environment/Aviation’. See the link list on the left margin of aiREFORM webpages.

A Drone Video of Cherry Blossoms, at the UW Campus in Seattle

Image

(click on image to view the 2-minute drone video, shot in March 2016)

Two Washingtons: East and West.

In the West, where Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton 73-27 in the democratic primary caucus, a photo of the cherry blossoms wins top prize in a springtime photo contest. The accompanying drone video inspires, as does the progressive candidate seeking real political change.

In the East, in Washington, DC, cherry blossoms generate warnings from FAA to not use drones to shoot pictures. Meanwhile, FAA expends no effort cleaning up the mess they have made, imposing NextGen procedures that grow airline profits by discarding decades-old noise abatement procedures, impacting entire new neighborhoods. No inspiration; no progress; same old downward spiral.

[QUOTE]: A Comment About FAA Overreach on Airspace in Salem, Oregon

Aside

QUOTE

“…The Salem airspace FAA fiasco is but one more example of the utterly failed regulatory policies of FAA, that represent little but the tip of the iceberg of a poorly informed, completely aviation inexperienced, technically illiterate bureaucracy, massively out of step with modern aviation needs, concerns, and safety requirements….”

– a reader comment to Ben Sclair’s GA News article, ‘Whiplash in Salem’.

We see news and evidence everyday, showing how FAA has become the ‘force’ – faraway in DC, and disconnected from the local realities – that denies local control of airports and impedes progress to manage and limit aviation impacts. These are all signs of a deeply captured agency.

But, it is important to also recognize, FAA tries to not discriminate, thus makes problems not just for the non-aviation community (airport neighbors) but also for many within the aviation community. There are many legitimate individuals involved in aviation, battling FAA’s mindless bureaucracy and bottomless power; they, too, are feeling ‘burned’ by FAA’s waste and ineptitude. It is beyond comprehension that FAA would need to specially modify the minimally-used airspace as discussed in this article. A pointless effort engaging a formal rulemaking process to no productive end, an effort that seems to serve nobody – except, it does give some underworked FAA employees a task to spend time on.

This article is at General Aviation News, a periodical based in the Seattle area that has been a leading news source for people in aviation, particularly on the west coast. The airport, Salem [KSLE], serves a state capitol but has ZERO commercial airline operations and is extremely slow – averaging just three takeoffs per hour – yet receives subsidies for a contract air traffic control tower.

Click here to read the GA News article and comments.

FAA’s Drone Registry is Clearly Excessive … Yet Ineffective and Serves No Valid Purpose

Heritage Foundation has posted an excellent article that gets past the spin/hype/distortion that FAA has deployed in their recently imposed ‘Drone Registry’. A strong case exists to show that FAA’s real intent is simply to ‘look busy’, as they very publicly impose regulations upon flying toys made of foam and typically weighing far less than your average duck. Notably, too, during the six decades before the registry was started in December, FAA had consciously chosen to let model aircraft operators ‘self-regulate’ … even with much heavier and far more dangerous powered model aircraft (in fact, there was even a history of model airplane accidents with injuries and even fatalities).

The article, Purposeless Regulation: The FAA Drone Registry, was written by Jason Snead and John-Michael Seibler. Here is a copy:

This pop-out view is scrollable, and the PDF copy may be downloaded.

Due to its clear arbitrariness, this major FAA policy shift is at the core of a lawsuit, Taylor v. FAA, filed on 12/24/2015. Mr. Taylor argues that FAA violated Congress’ UAS guidance in the last FAA Authorization … the same horrible legislation which FAA used to justify NextGen impacts without environmental review (see the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, 2/14/2012).


See also:

Another Example of FAA Misdirecting Its Abundant Resources

(click on image to view original article at AOPA.org)

(click on image to view original article at AOPA.org)

In early 2012, within the same congressional legislation that enabled FAA to impose impactful NextGen routes without meaningful environmental review, FAA was directed to accelerate ‘integration of unmanned aerial vehicles’ into the National Airspace System. Deadlines were set, and FAA has consistently failed these deadlines, but FAA did eventually get around to creating some rules. FAA also created an exemption process, enabling so-called ‘commercial operators’ to proceed without compliance to the new rules.

FAA has since granted more than a thousand exemptions (searchable list of 1,451 exemption entries, with links to PDF copies). Each exemption has required dozens of hours of work on both ends of the process: the applicant (or their well-paid attorney) has to create typically 20-50 pages of documentation, and FAA lawyers and others then spend dozens of hours reviewing the application and drafting a ‘decision’ filled with boilerplate that typically runs 8-10 pages long. Generally, the exemptions require flight no higher than 400-feet above ground level, and the operator must have earned a costly FAA pilot certification. In many cases, FAA has also submitted the exemption applications for publication in the Federal Register, in accordance with the NPRM rulemaking process.

One of the latest FAA exemption approvals goes to Peter Sachs, a Connecticut attorney developing a specialty in unmanned flight. Here, he was granted approval to fly a paper airplane with a tiny propeller … so long as he uses an FAA-licensed pilot to perform the flight and flies low to the ground. Just a paper airplane, which clearly could have no significant impact on any real aircraft.

Perhaps a more intelligent FAA rule (and one that would provide lots of relief from aviation noise) would be to mandate all manned aircraft minimize flight time below say 2,500-feet above ground level (AGL), and do all level cruising flights at no less than 2,500-feet AGL.

For the record, FAA’s current helicopter rules essentially allow helicopter pilots to cruise right at ground level, and fixed-wing planes are legal at just 500-feet above ‘uncongested’ terrain and 1,000-feet above ‘congested terrain’ (whatever those terms mean). Furthermore, the rules promulgated by FAA at FAR 91.119 are loaded with loopholes that render them entirely unenforceable; for example, ANY pilot can justify low flying, simply by claiming he or she needed to be at that altitude to transition to or from their cruising altitude.

It seems rather incredible that this much busywork should go into creating rules, yet the rules are so arbitrary that the agency quickly grants rule exemptions to well over a thousand applicants. And all of this fuss over objects (radio-control models, and even paper airplanes now!) that just four years ago were considered ‘recreational’. One has to question just how intelligent a rule is, when thousands of exemptions are promptly issued. Imagine if our state DMV’s arbitrarily issued 30mph maximum speed limits for our cars, then granted tens of thousands of waivers, each accompanied with a tiny decal to go onto our cars. Yes, it would be absurd and expensive, but it sure would keep lots of state DMV employees busy.

The same appears to be the case at FAA. Wouldn’t it be nice if FAA redirected their personnel resources, aiming them instead at…

  • … resolving noise issues,
  • … reducing GA accident rates,
  • … improving helicopter fuel tank ruptures (and other serious airworthiness problems), and
  • … correcting the employee fatigue issues that continue to haunt pilots and controllers?

FAA could do so much more, if it chose to serve the People, not just the industry players.

How FAA is Sabotaging the Citizen Involvement Process on ‘OAPMs’

Suppose you live in Southern California, maybe near the airport in Santa Monica. And, suppose you are highly responsible, the kind of person who doesn’t just take the time to vote but also sacrifices even more of your precious personal time to participate in important decisions by your government. You make it a habit to stay informed and involved.

One day, a news item announces that FAA has a big airspace redesign project: the SoCal Metroplex OAPM.**OAPM = ‘Optimization of Airspace & Procedures in the Metroplex’. You read the article and see that FAA has posted documents online and will have public ‘open houses’ at libraries and other locations, to answer questions and to enable citizen awareness of the proposals. At the end of the ‘open houses’, FAA has set a deadline for you to offer your concerns, suggestions, etc.

You are a busy person, with a job and a home and a family, but you nonetheless make time to do what you feel is your civic duty. You go online and find a slick webpage (created by a contractor for FAA) with an overview and more links. You click on the ‘Documents’ link and find another slick page, this one with links to 57 documents totaling 793 megabytes. Some of the links point to PDF files so large (the largest three are 70MB, 83MB, and 84MB) that you cannot even bear the long wait time to finish a download. You nonetheless wait through the slow downloads and open a few of the links.

You then wade through hundreds of pages, filled with aviation acronyms and other gobbledygook. You are bright and curious, and try your damnedest to make sense of what you are reading, and yet many pages are filled with information that appears to be completely irrelevant. Not just irrelevant to your small area of concern (how will these changes impact my home and my family, here in Santa Monica?), but even for the larger area of focus identified in FAA’s 57 online documents (the entire SoCal Metroplex, spanning from the Salton Sea to Solvang, and from Victorville to Tijuana).

You plow ahead and formulate a few questions. You attend a local Open House, where you find a team of FAA employees and aviation professionals awaits, ready to answer your questions. They eagerly focus on the claimed benefits, especially the claimed reduction in fuel consumption, but they grow quiet on some of your questions. You become perplexed when you realize: they are refusing to answer any questions related to the environmental impacts of their proposed changes. It is as if the proposal is all about enhancing capacity while blindly ignoring the environment. You depart the Open House and maybe, just MAYBE, you still have enough energy left to write and submit a comment before the deadline. Or, perhaps more likely, you simply shake your head and wonder: Why is this such a broken process?

The Laws…

Rest assured: it was never intended that the process would evolve as it has, to narrowly serve only the regulator and the regulated, at the expense of the much larger Public. And it is not you; it is the process that has gone nuts.

In the big picture, there are two fundamental elements needed for the effective functioning of Democracy and representative government:

  1. maximum informational transparency (in the timely release of quality reports and draft documents),
  2. and the assurance that individual citizens have an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process.

To protect the people against agency regulatory capture, many federal laws have been deliberated and passed by Congress. Not least of these laws is the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The APA was passed in the 1940’s, aimed at bringing the evolving over-reach of numerous federal agencies back under control. Aimed at ensuring, no matter how simple or complex a proposed new rule was, agencies were not allowed to operate in a vacuum, and citizens were empowered to make meaningful contributions. Essentially, it is a check-and-balance; our past Congress’ passed laws that empowered our federal employees to create changes, but to protect our rights and ensure an effective process, Congress also passed laws requiring an open process engaging the public.

Wonderful concept, isn’t it? The problem, though, is this is only a ‘concept’, because in reality FAA (and more than a few other federal agencies) have slowly developed strategies for subverting the process. FAA is the regulatory agency with the authority to regulate airlines, manufacturers, and other aviation entities. But, FAA is a captured agency, and as such routinely serves the interests of the airlines and others FAA is supposed to be regulating.

…And How FAA is Subverting the Laws

FAA is knowingly ‘fixing’ the outcome of the reviews for changes in airport procedures and airspace design, by using the following strategies:

  • overwhelm the individual citizen with documentation, so that it is impossible for a responsible citizen to dedicate enough of their personal time to completing a thorough review. For example, a typical airport Master Plan, even for a very insignificant rural airport with little traffic, commonly measures 300-500 pages; it is hard for even a very intelligent citizen to sort through the document, even just to establish which pages are relevant and which pages are irrelevant.
  • further overwhelm the individual citizen by expanding the scope of the changes being proposed. By doing this, even the sharpest citizen (and what are the odds they are also blessed with limitless time and obsessive research skills?) will find it impossible to produce any kind of focused, specific comments. In the example of the current SoCal OAPM, the only people who MIGHT be able to process all the data are the FAA contractors who earned millions in public funds creating that webpage with 57 links to 793 MB’s of PDF files. And, don’t forget: FAA and its contractors are all biased toward approving the proposals!
  • be selective with FAA’s answers to citizen questions. By routinely ignoring the environmental questions, the agency (and, also, the aviation professionals who are ‘collaborating ‘ with FAA in this selective ‘non-answering’ policy) will nudge concerned citizens toward self-doubt. Some may even begin to question whether they are too sensitive about a problem the so-called experts cannot even recognize.
  • drag it all out forever. Delay, and delay some more, so that the process cannot possibly engage the ongoing attention of a concerned citizen. They can come to a long series of presentations, and hear the same garbage. Each time, the citizen is allowed to express his or her concern. After doing so a few times, they may just get the intended message: “WE ARE NOT REALLY LISTENING! So, move along and shut up, and accept we will do what we want at this airport!”
  • Divide and conquer. The larger Public is horribly disserved, but FAA does their job very well (that is, their REAL job, which clearly is ‘serving aviation interests’) when they find ways to get those who question airport projects to instead fight among themselves. Even good, smart and dedicated people have their limits. Stress them with noise and leaded exhaust and jet fumes, then do little to mitigate the problems; eventually, passions will flare and more citizens will give up.

 

FAA Still Failing on Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

“What are they smoking at the FAA???
“When is the FAA (and their indifferent parent, the DOT) going to fire their current crop of idiot regs-makers, and replace them with sober, competent, responsible adults?”

The above are valid questions, raised by a commenter in an online article at AW&ST’s AviationDaily, FAA Urged To Act Fast On Final Small-UAS Rule. The article and the comments are well worth reading.

FAA is way behind schedule, but they are also failing to address the real issues. In fact, for the smaller and wildly popular hobby drones, the key issue is less about safety (since even small manned aircraft should not be flying so low to the ground), but more about the invasion of personal privacy. FAA is proceeding through a formal rulemaking process (NPRM) right now, and hearing these concerns from citizens. Here is a portion of a citizen comment that focuses on personal privacy and the use of drones to monitor and arrest people, as submitted to the NPRM (by Christopher Booth, in Concord, NH):

“Addressing the issue of privacy is paramount. You can operate a UAV for private use, but can not obtain imagery which would violate any person’s expectation of privacy, and no imagery or information may be obtained for public use without regard for the requirement that a warrant must be obtained before such collection if it is going to be admissible in any court proceeding or may be used for the purpose of obtaining the arrest of any person. In other words you can not randomly fly a UAV over a city looking for someone to arrest, or to observe whether anyone is obeying or disobeying any law. You have to get a warrant for that, and it has to have probable cause that the person should be arrested, and must specify where you can look for them and who you are looking for to obtain that warrant – from a judge in open court, in the presence of a public defender arguing why the warrant should not be issued.”

Everyone would be better served if FAA simply punted. Perhaps FAA should relinquish regulatory authority for low altitude (?below 500-feet AGL and clear of all actual airport traffic patterns?) and light-weight (?under ten pounds?) drone uses?

Also, FAA could reduce noise impacts by helicopters AND increase safety margins, if they would simultaneously tighten the FAR 91.119 ‘Minimum Safe Altitude’ flight restrictions. It would be a ‘win-win’ if FAA would require that all manned aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) cruise at altitudes at least 2,000-feet AGL, and transition to/from these cruise altitudes within reasonable short distances of takeoff/landing locations. Skies would be quieter AND safer.


See also:

EPA on Leaded Avgas: Delay-Delay-Delay

EPA recently issued a response to a petition filed by a coalition seeking action to address the problem of aviation lead air pollution, particularly at the nation’s busiest GA-training airports. Lead was banned decades ago in automotive fuel, paints, and other products, yet lead is still being added to the fuel used by small propeller-driven aircraft, even newly-built aircraft with brand-new aircraft engines.

(click on image to view original article)

(click on image to view original article)

A quick look at the timeline on this matter reveals just how ineffective EPA is at pressuring FAA to protect air quality near airports. The timeline on this issue is as follows:

  • October 3, 2006: petition by Friends of the Earth, seeking rules to regulate GA lead emissions
  • late 2008: EPA strengthened the NAAQS for lead, reducing the allowable level from 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter, to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter
  • 2010: EPA improved lead monitoring by requiring readings at selected airports
  • July 18, 2012: EPA responded to the 2006 petition
  • April 21, 2014: petition by a coalition, asking EPA to reconsider the 2012 response
  • January 23, 2015: EPA’s final response letter, responding to the 2014 petition

Note that the timeline includes two formal response letters by EPA. In the first one, in mid-2012, EPA estimated they would produce a final determination in mid- to late-2015, with regard to Avgas lead emissions endangerment. In their latest formal response letter, EPA is now estimating they will produce a final determination in 2018, with regard to Avgas lead emissions endangerment.

That’s twelve years, 2006 to 2008, just to produce a ‘final determination’, which does not even get to the actual change needed. An entire generation will be born and grow up breathing in this lead, at and near hundreds of lead-impacted airports in the U.S. — not just the ‘seventeen’ airports posted in EPA’s latest questionable summary, but scores of other ‘unlisted’ airports, too (like Hillsboro, near Portland, OR).

The beat goes on. And, so does the AvGas lead pollution….


See also:

EPIC.org: Challenging FAA’s Tone-Deafness on UAS ‘Privacy’

On December 2nd, Gizmodo.com posted an article, Why the FAA Isn’t Worried About Drones Invading Your Privacy Right Now. This article was triggered by a post the day before at EPIC.org, FAA Grounds Drone Privacy Safeguards. Here’s the background…

EPIC.org is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an independent non-profit research center based in Washington, DC. According to their website ‘about EPIC page’, EPIC is all about fundamental democratic values. EPIC works to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet. EPIC maintains two of the most popular privacy web sites in the world – epic.org and privacy.org.

Aviation activities are rapidly transitioning from manned vehicles (fixed-wing and helicopters) to unmanned aircraft systems (aka UAS, or ‘drones’). This transition can provide great benefits, such as reduced energy use and reduced air and noise pollution. But, this transition also has the potential to lead us to a new world where the skies become crowded with silent drones monitoring all our activities, and even being used to ‘take out’ arbitrarily defined threats. EPIC.org is one of the leading NGO’s working to ensure that the needs of the larger Public are being properly considered, during the development of these new technologies and regulations.

In early 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). This legislation was a big package, covering airport projects, expansion of NextGen technologies, etc. It also directed FAA to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system,” providing for this integration “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

In the weeks following President Obama’s signing of FMRA, a petition was filed with FAA, asking the agency to “”conduct a notice and comment rulemaking on the impact of privacy and civil liberties related to the use of drones in the United States.” EPIC was joined by over 100 other organizations, experts, and members of the public in presenting the petition.

FAA already had a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the works, and it was published in the Federal Register on March 9, 2012. Given the short notice, it was reasonable that FAA did not include the privacy issues in this NPRM. Instead, FAA added a solicitation for privacy-issue comments to a later NPRM, published in February 2013. Consequently, the entire issue of drone privacy impacts has been inadequately addressed by FAA. So, a full 31-months after the February 2012 petition, FAA finally got around to sending a weak ‘reply’ letter to EPIC.org.

How can we do Better?

All of this suggests we would be far better served, if FAA would relinquish regulatory authority over the low-altitude airspace. A more flexible – and more responsive – authority should be handling low-altitude drone regulations … perhaps even local or state officials. And, their regulations should be required to conform with reasonable (and legislated) privacy protections.


Here is a chronology with links to the documents:

2/24/12 EPIC.org’s Petition, filed with FAA
 3/8/12 FAA’s NPRM, requesting comments for the UAS Test Sites
5/8/12 EPIC.org comments, filed with FAA’s NPRM
 2/22/13  FAA’s NPRM, presenting the process by which FAA will select UAS Test Sites, and also soliciting comments about UAS Test Site privacy concerns
 4/23/13  EPIC.org comments submitted to NPRM
 11/14/13  FAA’s final draft of Privacy Requirements for UAS Test Site Program
 11/26/14  FAA’s letter to EPIC.org, responding to the Petition (31-months later! … and signed by Lirio Liu, recently promoted to Director, Office of Rulemaking)

See also:

It’s Black Friday … and Tens of Thousands of RC Aircraft Likely will be Purchased

Which means a lot more work for the nearly 45,000 employees at the FAA.

Why? Because FAA is way behind in developing the drone regulations Congress has mandated, and this failure is putting the U.S. way behind other countries where drones use far less fuel and create far less noise to get certain jobs done. Also, because FAA liberally defines the ‘National Airspace System’ to include not just at legitimate aviation locations such as places where quiet drones could monitor rush-hour traffic at 500- to 1,000-feet altitude (instead of those noisy traffic watch helicopters and planes), but also at absurd places far below real aircraft, like:

  • the 400-foot altitude that the neighbor kid carefully stays within while flying his radio-controlled model airplane … all with clear approval of FAA, up until a couple months ago;
  • the 100-feet of airspace above your house, which you might enjoy using with an aerial camera drone, to capture nice aerial photos of your garden or home project;
  • or even (arguably) the classroom air between your son and his target when he decides to launch a spitwad (which NTSB recently decided can be treated as an ‘aircraft’, and is thus subject to FAA regulations).

20141125.. RadioShack ad, RC quadcopter and heloHere’s the Radio Shack ad for today’s big sale. The quadcopter in the upper-right corner, with the glow-green rotors, costs only $60 and is for kids 12 and older.

The red helicopter in the upper left costs only $15, and claims to be for kids 8 and older! Which makes one wonder: will FAA be sending inspectors to elementary school auditoriums to discuss with third-graders, ‘How Kids can Help to Keep the National Airspace System Safe’?