Tag Archives: aviation

Close Encounter Between Airliner and “Drone” Reflects Challenges to a Fledgling Industry

        On April 28, 2015, the crew of Virgin America flight 769 reported seeing a “drone” flying in the approach path to Dallas Love Field as the airliner descended for landing. Based on media reports, at about 9:30 p.m., the crew witnessed a lighted quadcopter flying above their aircraft as they passed over the Crescent Hotel near downtown Dallas, which is approximately 3 miles from Love Field. The Dallas Police Department dispatched a helicopter in an attempt to verify the report and to locate the quadcopter. However, at this time, it does not appear that the quadcopter or its operator were found.

        With the increasing availability of high-quality “drones” (referred to by the Federal Aviation Administration as “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” or “UASs”) these types of encounters are on the rise. Such encounters are a concern for many reasons. Not only do they present an obvious safety hazard for larger aircraft, their passengers, and the public on the ground; such encounters are harmful to the UAS industry, which is only beginning to develop the full potential of this important technology. Many private organizations and governmental bodies are searching for ways to regulate UAS operations in a manner that will encourage growth of the industry without compromising safety.

        The FAA recently announced proposed regulations applicable to operation of Small UASs.1 Those regulations are meant to apply to commercial operators, and they are designed to address pilot certification, registration, and safety. The UAS flight witnessed by the Virgin-America crew might have run afoul of several of the proposed regulations because:

  1. they require operators to maintain visual-line-of-sight to the UAS (meaning that the UAS must remain within the sight of the operator, unaided by any device);
  2. they prohibit flight over persons not directly involved in the operation of the UAS;
  3. they prohibit operation at night;
  4. they require an air-traffic-control clearance for operation within Class B airspace; and
  5. they prohibit operation at an altitude higher than 500 ft. above ground level.

        As the UAS industry grows, it is important for UAS operators to use good judgment to avoid encounters with other aircraft and to avoid operating in an unsafe manner. Additional encounters like flight 769 may cause more-stringent regulations and may restrict the growth of the UAS industry. Further, although it is difficult, it is important for pilots to remain vigilant to “see and avoid” potential hazards (just like the crew of flight 769 did) and to report errant UAS operations to air traffic control when spotted.

1The proposed regulations are available at: http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published/media/2120-AJ60_NPRM_2-15-2015_joint_signature.pdf

FAA Legal Interpretation Presents Problems for Ride Sharing Websites and the Pilots Who Use Them

In an August 13, 2014 legal interpretation letter, the FAA challenges the legality of general aviation “ride sharing” websites such as Airpooler.com, and it raises important issues for pilots relating to potential FAA enforcement actions and problems with insurance coverage.

Airpooler.com is a website designed to facilitate “ride sharing” between private pilots and passengers, essentially pairing pilots and passengers who share a common destination.  The idea is that the pilot and the passenger will split the costs of the flight, resulting in savings for both parties.  Airpooler requested that the FAA provide a legal interpretation stating that private pilots who participate in the website are not violating FAA regulations by carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire.

The FAA interpretation stated that the term “compensation” includes pilots and passengers sharing expenses.  But the FAA also recognized that 14 C.F.R. § 61.113 provides an exception for expense sharing.  (Indeed, this exception is the foundation upon which ride-sharing websites are built.)  The FAA stated that it is not enough for a private pilot to rely on the exception to avoid being deemed to have operated for compensation or hire.  The FAA stated that a “bona fide” “common purpose” with the passengers is required, and the pilot must have his own reason for travelling to the destination.  Thus, the FAA concluded that pilots using ride-sharing websites are acting as common carriers for compensation or hire.

The FAA’s legal interpretation is certainly not beyond question. For example, it is not clear that pilots and passengers using ride-sharing websites lack a bona fide common purpose to travel to the specific, common destination.  (However, courts give significant deference to such agency interpretations.)  Regardless, the FAA’s interpretation presents a clear indication that pilots who utilize ride-sharing websites could face enforcement action for violating the regulations.  Furthermore, the interpretation raises potential insurance issues.  General aviation insurance policies often exclude coverage for flights made for compensation or hire.  Thus, a pilot could face a denial of coverage.  All such issues should be considered by a pilot who chooses to utilize ride-sharing websites in the future.

For a copy of the FAA’s legal interpretation letter, click here.