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Aerospace Law Blog Legal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

It's not a bird or a plane... So what do we do with it? Concerns and regulations increase as drone usage skyrockets.

December 20, 2017 | Leigh Ann Massey

Reports of incidents involving unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), or drones, are on the rise. In October, for example, a drone crashed into a small passenger airplane as it was approaching the runway at the Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City, Canada.  Although the airplane was landed safely and there were no reported injuries, the post-collision aircraft inspection revealed damage to one of the plane’s wings.  This is the first time a drone has collided with a commercial aircraft in Canada, though pilot sightings of UASs has increased dramatically, at home and abroad, in the recent years.

Drone popularity has risen steeply as commercial users, not only individuals, are finding new and creative ways to incorporate drone usage into their business models.  Drones are now used to provide video footage for major news stories.  They hover over football players during NFL games.  They’re used to film promotional videos for luxury resorts and hotels.  They may, someday, be used to ensure same-day delivery of online orders. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), through authority conferred by 49 U.S.C. § 106, implemented regulations known as Part 107 to apply specifically to small unmanned aircraft systems used for purposes other than solely hobby or recreational.  These regulations, effective in 2016, provide relevant definitions (small UASs are those weighing less than 55 lbs) and guidelines for operation of UASs.  For example, 14 C.F.R. Part 107 requires registration of UASs with the FAA and calls for voluntary reporting of accidents or damage caused by a drone.  Similarly, Part 107 requires commercial “flyers” to obtain FAA certificates and prohibits drone usage in certain airspace (e.g., around airports) without the permission of Air Traffic Controllers.

This month, President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act into law, which extends certain requirements to those using model UASs.  Although previously exempted from the registration requirement of Part 107, drone hobbyists (those that purchase and use drones for personal, non-commercial use) will be required to provide their name and contact information to the FAA, as well as pay a small fee, to be legally compliant when operating their drones.

While drones offer many benefits across multiple industries, there are still numerous issues to be addressed.  There are safety considerations (as evidenced by the airfield collision in Canada), legal considerations (e.g., inability to identify owners of drones involved in accidents or collisions), as well as privacy considerations (e.g., drones used for unknown surveillance of an individual), to name a few.  Additionally, the nature and scope of insurance related to drones remains in its early phase.

As drone usage continues to increase, it’s only a matter of time before the common law will develop to address some of these lingering concerns.  Insurance coverage, terms and conditions also will impact the nature and extent of protection for those using drones.

The ultimate impact drones will have on our national airspace, and those involved in its regulation, is unknown.  We’ll keep our eyes to the sky and provide relevant updates when they become available.

Related Services: Aerospace

Attorneys: Leigh Ann Massey

Careful with those gifts, Santa. The FAA is coming to town!

August 29, 2016

The Holidays will be here before we know it. Santa may have to team up with the FAA when gifting to “big kids” if their wish list includes something more substantial than a model airplane.  In all seriousness, however, Part 107 is the FAA’s continued effort to maintain the safety of the National Airspace System and must be strictly adhered to. 

The new Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Rule, Part 107, takes effect today. The Rule governs unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and does not apply to UAS’s flown strictly for hobby or recreational purposes, so long as they are flown in accordance with the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. 

The newly-titled “Remote Pilot in Command” must hold either a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate with a Small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of one who holds such a Certificate. To qualify, the Certificate candidate must (1) demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by either passing an aeronautical test at one of the FAA-approved knowledge testing centers; or hold a Part-61 Pilot Certificate, have completed a flight review within the last 24 months, and complete a small UAS online FAA training course; (2) be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration; and (3) be at least 16 years old.  An FAA airworthiness certification is not required, but the Remote Pilot in Command must complete a preflight check of the small UAS to ensure that it is in a condition safe for operation.

Among other things, Part 107 dictates that the Remote Pilot in Command not operate the Small UAS during daylight and civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise and 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) and that the Small UAS be operated with appropriate anti-collision lighting. The Small UAS may not operate over any persons not directly participating in its operation, and may not be operated under a covered structure, nor inside a stationary vehicle. Other requirements include yielding the right of way to other aircraft and not exceeding the maximum groundspeed of 100 mph (87 knots) or maximum altitude of 400 feet. The Rule permits a Small UAS to carry an external load so long as it does not adversely affect the aircraft’s characteristics or controllability. Most of the operational restrictions are waivable if the Remote Pilot in Command demonstrates that the proposed operation can be conducted safely under the waiver. 

Click here for the complete text of the Small UAS Rule. 

Related Services: Aerospace

Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corporation: Another Nail in the Coffin of Field Preemption for Aviation Product Liability Claims

May 3, 2016 | John Patterson

The doctrine of implied federal preemption, which is rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, comes in two general forms – conflict preemption and field preemption.  Conflict preemption, the less potent of the two, arises when a particular state law makes compliance with a particular federal law impossible.  Field preemption is of a more sweeping variety.  If Congress intended to preempt the entire field of a particular subject matter, then state law must give way, regardless of whether a conflict exists.  Field preemption can be one of the most potent tools in a defense attorney’s arsenal.

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit took a decisive step in removing this arrow from the quiver those who practice in the field of aviation products liability defense.  In Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corporation, No. 14-4913, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7015 (3rd Cir. April 19, 2016), the court comprehensively ruled that issuance of a type certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration (‘FAA”), which essentially provides federal governmental confirmation that an aviation product meets FAA design standards, does not preempt the field when a plaintiff asserts a state law products liability claim alleging that the aviation product was defectively designed or manufactured.

Plaintiff/appellant in Sikkelee was the widow of a man who died in an airplane crash.  Her wrongful death petition alleged that there was a defect in the aircraft’s carburetor which allowed for fuel leaks, and further asserted state law product liability claims premised upon the alleged defects in design and/or manufacture of the carburetor.  The carburetor had been type-certificated by the FAA prior to its installation in 2004.  Defendant/appellee, the manufacturer of the engine to which the carburetor was attached, moved for summary judgment on the grounds that issuance of the type certificate preempted plaintiff’s state law product liability claims.  According to defendant, the fact that Congress provided the FAA with broad and sweeping powers to regulate all aspects of air safety meant that the entire field of air safety had been preempted by federal law.  The District Court granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor, apparently based upon the Third Circuit’s decision in Abdullah v. American Airlines, 181 F.3d 363 (3rd Cir. 1999).

As should be apparent already, the Third Circuit reversed the District Court’s summary judgment and remanded the action.  In reaching its conclusion that field preemption was not applicable, the Third Circuit considered and rejected a whole host of bases on which field preemption could be premised.

First, the court scuppered appellee’s argument that Abdullah, supra, provided a platform for field preemption.  The court held that the broad pronouncement in Abdullah that the Federal Aviation Act “preempted the field of aviation safety” actually referred only to “in-air operations,” and did not apply to the manufacture and design of aircraft.  Sikkelee, 2016 U.S. App. Lexis 7015, at *16-20.

Next, the court looked to indicia of congressional intent, specifically the Federal Aviation Act, the Federal Aviation Regulations (“FARs”) and the statute of repose found in the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (“GARA”).  In rather cursory fashion, the court found that the Federal Aviation Act provided no support for field preemption, because it sets forth only “minimum standards” and provides that its remedies are “in addition to any other remedies provided by law.”  Id. at *25-27 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 44701 and 49 U.S.C. § 40120).  Likewise, the court found that the FARs do not support field preemption because they are not sufficiently comprehensive with respect to the design and manufacture of aircraft.  Id. at *28-36.  The court went on to note the minute detail with which some aspects of aircraft manufacture and design are regulated, which may on first blush seem inconsistent with its position regarding the non-comprehensiveness of the FARs, but logically can be reconciled.  Id. at *32 (citing 14 CFR 33.69).  The court’s view of GARA was more straightforward and thus more compelling.  If Congress had intended to preempt the field of aircraft design and manufacture, asked the court, why would it have enacted a statute of repose for state law causes of action, thereby implicitly recognizing that state law causes of action based upon state law standards of care are viable?  According to the Third Circuit, Congress would not have done so, as it would have rendered GARA superfluous.  Id. at *37-43.

Next, the court examined United States Supreme Court preemption jurisprudence generally, in addition to various other Circuit Court decisions specifically addressing the issue of whether state law causes of action for defective manufacture/design of aviation products are subject to field preemption.  Regarding the former, the Third Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has been reluctant to extend the doctrine of field preemption in the transportation context.  Id. at *50-51.  As to the latter, the court noted that various other federal circuits have either wholly refused to find that the entire field of aviation safety is preempted, have carved product liability claims out from preemption as applied to other aspects of aviation safety, or, at the very least, have indicated a willingness to approach preemption of aviation safety issues on an area by area basis.  Id. at *61-67.

Finally, the court considered the appellee’s argument that aircraft manufacturers would be exposed to tremendous potential liability and unpredictable, non-uniform standards without the protection afforded by field preemption.  The court dismissed these concerns, expressing that the federal statutory and regulatory regime had struck an adequate balance between protecting air commerce and promoting safety.  Id. at *67-71.

While the defeat of appellant’s field preemption argument was thorough and complete by any measure, the court did note that the doctrine of conflict preemption is alive and well with respect to product liability claims.  Id. at *56-57.  Thus, where “a manufacturer’s compliance with both the type certificate and a state law standard of care is a physical impossibility,” state law product liability claims may be conflict preempted.  Id., citing Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132 (1963).  The court did not provide any examples of the requisite “physical impossibility” that would invoke conflict preemption, however.

From an absolute standpoint, the Sikkelee decision does not wholly foreclose field preemption arguments in aviation products liability cases, at least in circuits that have not yet considered the issue.  However, Sikkelee presents a huge practical hurdle to any such argument, given the thoroughness with which the Third Circuit put it to the sword.  Going forward, aviation product manufacturers should continue to expect exposure to state law products liability claims, save for those elusive cases where conflict preemption arises when a “physical impossibility” prevents compliance with both the type certificate and state law standards of care.

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About Aerospace Law Blog

BSCR's Aerospace Blog explores significant issues and developments of interest to various participants in the aerospace community. Topics range from proposed regulatory changes to key court decisions. Learn more about the editor, John Patterson, and our Aerospace practice.

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