The manned and unmanned aviation communities do not see eye-to-eye on any number of issues. Each side has a vision of how unmanned aircraft fit into the National Airspace System, and each side continually engages with the FAA to push that vision. While the FAA’s attempt to balance these competing views often leaves one or both sides disappointed, one thing that both sides agree on is that these decisions should be left to the FAA.
Last month, representatives from the manned aviation community, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Experimental Aircraft Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Helicopter Association International, National Business Aviation Association, and National Air Transportation Association wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to oppose Senate Bill 2607. That bill, titled the Drone Integration and Zoning Act of 2019, aims to give state, local and tribal authorities, as well as private property owners, a say in the regulation of airspace for unmanned aircraft.
The Senate Bill would radically change control of the immediate reaches of the airspace, which it defines as 200 feet and below. The Bill removes the immediate reaches from the definition of “navigable airspace,” and prevents the FAA from giving any federal authorization for unmanned aircraft to operate below 200 feet over private property without permission of the owner. It also allows local governments to place additional “reasonable restrictions” on the use of this airspace, including speed limits, prohibiting flights during certain times of the day or week, and restricting flights that “affect local land use,” property rights, or result in noise pollution. The Bill also amends the FAA’s express preemption over state regulation of prices, routes, and services for unmanned aircraft engaged in the carriage of property. Finally, in a dramatic change, the bill prohibits the FAA from having any say in authorizing intra-state commercial package delivery operations below 200 feet. Essentially, if a state gives a delivery company an authorization, the FAA can not require the company to obtain an air carrier certificate or comply with Part 135.
On its face, the bill only affects unmanned aircraft and the regulation of airspace that manned aviation generally does not use, so why does the manned aviation community oppose it? Because they recognize that that this bill is potentially the first step down the slippery slope to weaken uniform federal control over the airspace. Unquestioned Federal preemption of state laws in the field of aviation took decades to build, and any cracks in the wall could lead others with similar interests, such as communities unhappy with aircraft noise, to bolster their case that a limited exception should be made for them as well.
It is good to see stakeholders cooperating on important regulatory issues such as this. It reflects a recognition by the manned aviation community that, like it or not, UAS are here to stay and a strong hand is needed to manage the tricky business of integration. It also demonstrates an improved attitude by the unmanned aircraft industry recognizing that, like it or not, they have to fit into a complex system, and a cooperative approach is the only way to proceed. Of course, there will still be tension on many technical issues in the future, but for now, a united front in favor of federal control of the airspace is the order of the day.