Thanks to FAA Reauthorization, U.S. Airports Have Long to-do List for 2019

Dec. 21, 2018

The pace of change in the U.S. airport business is about to accelerate further now that Congress has passed the long-delayed FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. The 1,200-page act contains a number of provisions that stand to affect U.S. airports. Below are three areas to track in the year ahead.

No. 1: Noise concerns

In passing the five-year reauthorization, Congress ordered the FAA to take a number of actions related to community noise concerns, a perennial issue for airports. For example, when proposing new area navigation departure procedures or changing existing procedures below 6,000 feet, FAA must consider the feasibility of using dispersal headings to mitigate noise over residential and other sensitive areas. The idea here is to spread flight paths out across the airspace instead of using busy “highways” in which large numbers of longitudinally separated planes continually fly over the same communities. On the other hand, anytime aircraft start taking new routes, complaints from the affected communities are a given.

Broadly speaking, FAA’s ongoing “NextGen” modernization of the national airspace could translate into a major shakeup in existing noise patterns and intensities. The reauthorization orders FAA to review its community-involvement practices for NextGen projects located in major metro areas. In addition, lawmakers ordered the agency to review and evaluate what is already known about how jet approach and takeoff speeds affect noise. They also directed FAA to commission academic research on the health effects of noise.

Wherever possible, airport operators need to have a seat at the table as the aforementioned discussions and studies progress. In particular, operators may need to reiterate certain limiting realities in play. Runways exist in their present directions and locations not just by chance, but because of specific considerations related to physics, weather and aerodynamics. The ideal situation, from the perspective of community noise mitigation, is not always viable for airport operators or the FAA to pursue.

No. 2: Supersonic Aircraft

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to fly the Concorde from Manhattan to London, a journey that took just three-and-a-half hours. In a move that feels a bit like going “back to the future,” the FAA reauthorization amounts to a major push for a return to supersonic air travel. According to the act, FAA must issue a notice of proposed rulemaking on noise standards for supersonic aircraft by March 31, 2020. Regulators also must fast-track the application process for civil supersonic aircraft.

“If we can fly twice as fast, the world becomes twice as small, turning far-off lands into familiar neighbors,” notes Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of Denver-based Boom, which bills itself as the world’s first airline for supersonic flights. Boom aims to start flying 200-person passenger aircraft, capable of Mach 2.2 airspeeds, by 2023. It has already secured a deal with Japan Airlines. For its part, Aerion is collaborating with GE Aviation and Lockheed Martin on what it bills as the world’s first supersonic business jet. Supersonic aircraft are coming to U.S. airports. From noise standards, to safety and runway considerations, operators need to be part of the process—and the time to start is now.

No. 3: Unmanned Aerial Systems

The act contains wide-ranging mandates for regulators on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and makes changes related to test sites, waivers and airworthiness; pilot, air carrier and airport certificates; design standards; package delivery; and regulation of “model” aircraft. Generally speaking, it further integrates drones into U.S. airspace—in part by ordering a federal study on allowing local control of the low-level airspace drones occupy.

Over the next year and beyond, we are likely to see real progress on UAS regulations, possibly including operation beyond the visual line of sight. Clearly, this is a potential area of concern for airports. However, the utilitarian benefits of UAS are worth considering, too. By coordinating with the tower and the FAA, airports stand to use drones safely and effectively for all kinds of tasks—bird control, runway safety inspections, security ops and more. Airlines can use UAS to inspect planes in 4K detail, with drones flying over and recording the entire fuselage, or to spot-check hangar roofs and ceilings.

Drones will be a part of U.S. airspace sooner rather than later. Airports need to be proactive, not only to defend their interests in terms of safety and security, but also to maximize the efficiency of their own operations.

It all means that U.S. airports will have plenty of items on their to-do lists for 2019.

Veteran aviation attorney Mark A. Dombroff is an Alexandria, Va.-based member of LeClairRyan and co-leader of the national law firm’s aviation industry practice; [email protected].