4 Unexpected Ways Congress’ Aviation Bill Impacts Cities

Every day, more than 42,000 flights travel through cities in the United States, carrying 2.5 million airline passengers across more than 29 million square miles of airspace. This is why reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was on the must-do list before Congress leaves Washington for the mid-term elections. Cities were glad to see that the Senate moved forward with a negotiated FAA package and sent it to the President’s desk for signature, particularly because the FAA’s existing programs were not the only programs of note for cities in the bill.

Drones Make Every Part of Your City an Airport

While any city with an airport knows that this FAA bill will impact them, every city will actually be impacted by this bill because it turns every part of a city into an “airport.” This bill contains significant changes to how unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, will be authorized to fly. Today, more drones are registered with the government than airplanes, and drone use is forecasted to continue to climb, especially as major logistics players like UPS, Amazon and the Postal Service consider drones’ practical uses.

To open up this space, this bill removed an exemption for model aircrafts that held the FAA back from writing overarching rules for all drones, including requiring an electronic identification system for drones. Congress also directed the FAA in Section 348 to update its rules to allow drones to carry property for hire within a year, opening up drones for a range of new transportation uses that could have an even greater growth trajectory than scooters and bikeshare on city streets. While the FAA is directed to “address the views of state, local, and tribal officials related to potential impacts of the carriage of property by operators of small unmanned aircraft systems for compensation or hire within the communities to be served,” cities must now work with the FAA to discuss the specifics of increasing drone flights and set expectations for how the new rules will impact communities.

In Section 346, Congress sought to streamline the process for public unmanned aircraft systems and public safety agencies to receive permission to fly drones that are 4.4 pounds or less by implementing some basic safety rules. The bill also contains language from the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018 (Division H), allowing the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to interdict and, if necessary, destroy errant drones. It remains a federal offense for local law enforcement to engage in similar actions, despite the inability of federal officials to have a presence in every community. With the increase of drone usage, NLC anticipates continuing to discuss with Congress what tools local law enforcement should have at its disposal.

Additionally, in Section 373, Congress requests a Government Accountability Office report to Congress on the regulation of low-altitude operations of small unmanned aircraft and the appropriate roles and responsibilities of federal, state, local, and tribal governments in regulating this activity. The report will address “the scope of various jurisdictions, gaps among them, and the level of regulatory consistency needed to foster a financially viable unmanned aircraft industry.” NLC will continue to advocate for cities’ interests as FAA and GAO move forward with their processes.

Workforce Wins, Including Investments in Local Aviation Maintenance Programs

The bill strongly recognizes the need to invest in a skilled aviation workforce in order to advance the overall growing needs and changing demands of the industry.  Across many sectors within the aviation sector, we have seen an increase in the demand for skilled workers combined with a peak in those who are retirement-eligible.  In short, we need to do a better job of ensuring that we are providing skills training and education that develops a strong pipeline into these critical jobs for local economies.  Reflecting that need, in Section 625 of the bill, cities saw a major legislative win with the inclusion of the Aviation Maintenance Workforce Development Program. NLC strongly advocated for this program, along with our partners in the aviation industry, that will provide cities and their partners with $5 million in competitive grants over five years to support career and technical education programs as well as access to scholarship, apprenticeship and transitional programs for those interested in the aviation maintenance sector. This new workforce training program will provide direct access to cities and their local partners to develop and further their programs in this growing sector.  We hope this program is an example of the recognition by Congress of the importance in investing in human capital as they make investments into physical infrastructure.

Airport Noise Gets Closer Scrutiny from Congress

Congress has been hearing from local communities about the impacts and challenges of airport noise from the ground and with the rise of drones and supersonic aircrafts, new noise discussions loom for cities of all sizes. While the FAA bill does not require FAA to reduce noise, several provisions, reports and requirements may assist cities with concerns in building a case for future policy changes. These provisions include:

  • Section 122, which states the Future Aviation Infrastructure and Financing Study must consider “the resources eligible for use toward noise reduction and emission reduction projects.”
  • Subtitle D—Airport Noise and Environmental Streamlining – the bill widens the potential entities who can conduct assessments beyond the airport itself.
  • Section 173 sets a deadline of one year from passage of the bill to complete the ongoing evaluation of alternative metrics to the current Day Night Level (DNL) 65 standard.
  • Section 174 requires updating the Airport Exposure Maps “if in an area surrounding an airport, a change in the operation of the airport would establish a substantial new noncompatible use, or would significantly reduce noise over existing noncompatible uses” compared to prior maps.
  • Section 175, Addressing Community Noise Concerns and modifying routes states that: “When proposing a new area navigation departure procedure, or amending an existing procedure that would direct aircraft between the surface and 6,000 feet above ground level over noise sensitive areas [the FAA] shall consider the feasibility of dispersal headings or other lateral track variations to address community noise concerns.”
  • Section 176 on Community Involvement in FAA NextGen Projects Located in Metroplexes gives a 180 day deadline to review FAA’s NextGen projects in metroplexes and review “how and when to engage airports and communities in performance-based navigation proposals” and report to Congress on “how the Administration will improve community involvement practices for NextGen projects located in metroplexes; how and when the Administration will engage airports and communities in performance-based navigation proposals; and lessons learned from NextGen projects and pilot programs and how those lessons learned are being integrated into community involvement practices for future NextGen projects located in metroplexes.”
  • Section 179 requires an FAA study to review and evaluate the “relationships of jet aircraft approach and takeoff speeds and the corresponding noise impacts on communities surrounding airports.”
  • Section 180 requires FAA to design individual ombudsman for each region to liaison with the community on issues like noise, pollution and safety, make recommendation to the Administrator to address concerns raised, improve consideration of public comments in decision-making, and consult in proposed changes in aircraft operations affecting the region.
  • Section 181, on setting noise standards for the use of civil Supersonic Aircraft, requires FAA to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking by March of 2020 that would identify noise requirements for the addition of civil supersonic flight to U.S. airspace.
  • Section 186 requires the Administrator to conclude the ongoing review of the relationship between aircraft noise exposure and its effects on communities around airports within two years of passage of the bill and report to Congress with recommendations.
  • Section 188 requires study of “alternative metrics to the current average day-night level standard, such as the use of actual noise sampling and other methods, to address community airplane noise concerns” within one year of passage and report to Congress.
  • Section 189 will require a “study on the health impacts of noise from aircraft flights on residents exposed to a range of noise levels from such flights” in cities such as Boston, Chicago, D.C., New York, the Northern California Metroplex, Phoenix, the Southern California Metroplex, Seattle and other areas identified by the FAA Administrator.
  • Section 190, the Environmental Mitigation Pilot Program will have the Secretary of Transportation issue a five-year pilot program of up to 6 environmental mitigation projects at public use airports that will “measurably reduce or mitigate aviation impacts on noise, air quality, or water quality at the airport or within 5 miles of the airport.” Up to $2.5 million is available and the federal share will be 50%.
  • Section 534 on a NextGen Delivery Study requires a review of the program including “an analysis of the potential impacts on aircraft noise and flight paths.”
  • Section 742 includes noise as a review criterion for Airport Technology.
  • Section 432 continues the FAA’s CLEEN program, which develops technologies to reduce noise and emissions.

Reform of Federal Disaster Assistance Rode on FAA

The FAA’s passage was significantly better for cities because it included the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) within it. Congress has heard cities’ call to build resilience into their system and the DRRA will shift federal resources to help communities take proactive steps to mitigate risk and make their neighborhoods safer. The additional investment in mitigation, both pre- and post-disaster, is the best defense against natural disasters and it will reduce future federal spending for disaster recovery. NLC commends Congress for setting stricter limitations on the ability of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to claw-back previously approved funds distributed to local governments for disaster relief efforts. We are pleased that Congress is committed to working with local leaders to rebuild our cities and to drive forward solutions for all American communities.

The DRRA will reform the FEMA programs that help communities better prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate against disasters of all types. DRRA increases focus on pre-disaster mitigation – actions taken before disaster strikes that will lessen future impacts, reduce disaster costs, help speed recovery, and prevent loss of life. Specific provisions in the bill will:

  • Reform FEMA and the Stafford Act by ensuring that a percentage of assistance provided in the wake of disasters is invested in pre-disaster hazard mitigation allowing states, tribal, and local governments to pre-empt the damage and distress that results from disasters.
  • Clarify what may be eligible for mitigation funding, making sure investments are cost effective and low in risk.
  • Speed recovery by creating efficiencies in FEMA’s programs, such as getting structures inspected faster.
  • Clarify federal programs to help expedite assistance for recipients of FEMA aid, resolve issues quickly, and rebuild more efficiently.
  • Provide more flexibility in meeting disaster survivors’ housing needs.
  • Simplify federal requirements for individuals and state, locals, and Indian tribal governments.
  • Help communities meet the needs of pets in disasters.
  • Increase transparency and oversight in the disaster assistance process.

As NLC President Mark Stodola, mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, said after Senate passage, “Cities are the hubs of our national airport system, and the passage of this FAA bill under the leadership of Rep. Shuster and Sen. Thune will keep cities and our economy moving. With aviation funding secured for five years and plans for essential air service funding, airport improvement, drone integration and contract towers that reach rural areas, cities now have certainty on how to partner with the FAA to build up an airspace that meets our needs on the ground.” The inclusion of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) in this FAA legislation was a win for cities on disaster preparedness and community resiliency. Cities across the country can now use these new tools to rebuild and to drive forward solutions for all American communities.


View NLC’s statement on the passage of the FAA bill here.

Are you interested in engaged on these issues at the national level? The application process is currently open for city leaders to join NLC Federal Advocacy Committees, including the Transportation & Infrastructure Services Committee which handles FAA and drone policy.

To learn more about drones in cities and how city authority and laws relate to drone use, such as land use, zoning, privacy, trespass, and law enforcement operations, view with NLC’s municipal guide, Cities and Drones, which is a primer on drones for local officials on how to encourage drone innovation while also protecting residents and cities economic interests.

brittney2_ready.jpgAbout the Author: Brittney Kohler is the program director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.