March/April 2011

Second Circuit Holds Federal Aviation Act Occupies Field of Aviation Safety

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Sarah Korapaty

In Goodspeed Airport LLC v. East Haddam Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Commission,1 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined several sister circuits in holding that the Federal Aviation Act (FAA) and its comprehensive implementing regulations occupy the entire field of aviation safety and preempt state laws and regulations that fall within that field.2

Previously, in Air Transport Ass’n of Am., Inc. v. Cuomo,3 the Second Circuit considered whether the FAA's regulatory scheme preempted New York's Passenger Bill of Rights statute, which implicated issues of air safety in the handling of lengthy tarmac delays. The Second Circuit determined that the state statute was expressly preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act and, therefore, did not decide the scope of FAA preemption.4

In recognizing that Cuomo fell short of "formally holding that Congress intended to occupy the field of air safety," the Second Circuit in Goodspeed Airport seized the opportunity to conclude that Congress intended to occupy the entire field and preempt state regulation of that field.5 Despite this broad holding, however, the Second Circuit ultimately found that the state laws at issue in the case "do not interfere with federal laws and regulations sufficiently to fall within the scope of the preempted field."6

In Goodspeed Airport, a privately owned and operated airport sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to establish and protect its right to cut down trees on wetland-protected land. The airport argued, in part, that state and local statutes requiring permission before impacting protected land are "impermissible intrusions upon a field of regulation which Congress … has indicated its intent to entirely occupy."7

Although the Court of Appeals agreed that Congress intended to occupy the entire field of air safety, it found that the state laws at issue "do not enter the scope of the preempted field in either their purpose or their effect."8 Particularly relevant to its analysis was the fact that the airport was not licensed by the FAA, was not federally funded and no federal agency mandated or approved the removal of the trees. Moreover, the state laws at issue did not preclude the airport from cutting down trees; rather, they simply required prior permission.

Like its fellow circuit courts, the Second Circuit will likely continue to refine the scope of FAA preemption as particular state laws and claims come before it.9

1 634 F.3d 206 (2d Cir. 2011).

2 See, e.g., U.S. Airways, Inc. v. O’Donnell, 627 F.3d 1318 (10th Cir. 2010) (New Mexico Liquor Control Act preempted by FAA regulations on in-flight service of alcohol); Elassaad v. Independence Air Inc., 613 F.3d 119 (3d Cir. 2010); Martin v. Midwest Exp. Holdings, 555 F.3d 806 (9th Cir. 2009); Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464 (9th Cir. 2007) (federal law preempted claims based on insufficient warnings); Greene v. B.F. Goodrich Aviation Systems, Inc., 409 F.3d 784 (6th Cir. 2005) (failure to warn claim was preempted); Witty v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 366 F.3d 380 (5th Cir. 2004) (failure to warn claims regarding deep-vein thrombosis held preempted); Abdullah v. Am. Airlines, Inc.,181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999) (federal regulations regarding seat belt signs preempted state law standard of care in personal injury claims); French v. Pan Am Express, 869 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1989) (FAA impliedly preempted Rhode Island's law regarding employee drug testing as it applied to pilots).

3 520 F.3d 218, 225 (2d Cir. 2008).

4 Id. at 224-25.

5 Goodspeed Airport, 634 F.3d at 210.

6 Id. at 211.

7 Id. at 209.

8Id. at 211.

9 See, e.g., Elassaad, 613 F.3d at 124 (narrowing Abdullah's preemptive reach to only claims concerning in-flight safety); Martin, 555 F.3d at 808 (refining broad preemption holding in Montalvo).

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