The House Passed an FAA Reauthorization Bill, With Two Conflicting Drone Amendments. Don’t Get Excited Yet.

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News and Commentary.  The U.S. House of Representatives announced at the end of last month that they had passed the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act by an overwhelming majority: 393 to 13.  This is significant news for all stakeholders in the aviation industry – many previous tries to gain consensus over a bill have failed, leaving the FAA operating on a series of extensions.

While this proposal eliminated many contentious issues, it has created some confusion for the drone industry.  The final version contains two amendments concerning drone laws that would seem to contradict each other.  But don’t get worried yet – lawmakers have a long way to go and many more arguments to enjoy before the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act becomes law.  The inclusion of these two opposing amendments may actually be good for the industry.

The DeFazio Amendment would give the FAA the right to regulate “model aircraft” – which a Federal Appeals Court has already agreed includes recreational drones.  This amendment goes so far as to suggest how the FAA might regulate them: including requiring knowledge tests.  This amendment was supported by the Commercial Drone Alliance and decried by the AMA: it would in fact mean a significant change to the way recreational drone operators fly today, and could limit that area of the industry.

The Sanford Amendment seems to say exactly the opposite:  “the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft;” except for specific circumstances detailed.  In addition, the Amendment says:  “When issuing rules or regulations for the operation of UAS under this section, the Administrator shall not—(1) require the pilot or operator of the UAS to obtain or hold an airman certificate; (2) require a practical flight examination, medical examination, or the completion of a flight training program…”

The Sanford Amendment seems to attempt something that perhaps should have been handled quite some time ago: to define the parameters of recreational flight and clarify the role of community-based organizations as named in Section 336.

While these two amendments were both included in the final package, no stakeholders in the industry should despair – or claim victory.  There is a long road to go before the 2018 FAA Reauthorization package becomes law.  We’ve been here before – the 2016 AIRR Act passed the House, calling for privatization of Air Traffic Control: the New AIRR Act of 2017 replaced it – but all of that resulted in another 3 extensions and no new Bill.

The FAA Reauthorization package is a tax bill: tax bills offer a lot of room for discussion in Congress. Having the package contain these two contradictory amendments may actually be good for the industry – because it should require Congress to address the issue of Section 336 and negotiate a decision.

What happens next?  The Senate will come up with their version, and then the two versions will need to be reconciled.  There will be many more amendments, a lot more discussion, and compromises on both sides.  In the end, Senate and House may agree, or they may pass yet another extension to an extension to an extension and leave it for another day.  In any case, we can still hope that the final Bill will clarify, rather than confound, the issue of whether or not recreational operators may be subject to further FAA regulations outside of those imposed by community based organizations.



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