Legal Analysis of the FAA’s Slot Auction Rule for JFK and Newark Part 1

Pt. 1: Setting The Stage

When the FAA adopted its slot auction rules for LaGuardia, JFK  and Newark Airports, it did so despite the fact that the GAO had issued a legal opinion stating that it believed that the FAA did not have a legal basis to conduct auctions of slots at the airports.

Needless to say, the FAA’s decision brought some criticism from Congress.  Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the FAA Inspector General, Hon. Calvin Scovel, requesting that he look into the matter and assess whether the FAA’s actions were “potential willful violations of the Purpose Statute [31 U.S.C. 1301(a)] and the Antideficiency Act [31 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1)(A)].”

The stakes got higher when, on October 10, 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey filed a Petition for Review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  That Petition was followed on October 14, 2008, by similar Petitions for Review filed by the International Air Transport Association and the Air Transport Association of America.  All of the Petitions for Review were consolidated by the Court on October 27, 2008.

There seems to be agreement among all of the parties that the FAA has the regulatory authority to impose caps on hourly arrival and departure slots based on its authority under 49 U.S.C. 40103(b)(1) and (2), which allows the FAA to “ensure efficient use of the airspace.”  The issue that separates the FAA from GAO, IATA, ATA and PANYNJ is whether the FAA may raise funds in connection with its assignment of slots through a slot auction, imposing a user fee, assessing a tax, or by some other mechanism.

In analyzing this fundamental disagreement some consensus emerges.  It is agreed that Congress has granted FAA explicit statutory authority to collect fees in several different situations, but that FAA has no explicit authority to impose fees related to the assignment of slots.  Indeed, the FAA has long sought such explicit authorization from Congress, which Congress has not yet granted.  See, e.g., 71 Fed.Reg. 51362 (Aug. 29, 2006) ( “. . . the FAA currently does not have the statutory authority to assess market-clearing charges for a landing or departure authorization”).  It is FAA’s efforts to get around the fact that it lacks explicit authority that is at the heart of the matter.

In order to claim authority to collect funds in connection with its assignment of slots, FAA makes two connected arguments.  First, FAA claims that a “slot” is an “intangible” form of property that it may lease pursuant to its “property disposition” power granted to it by Congress under 49 U.S.C. 106(l)(6) and (n) and 40110(a)(2).  Second, since the slot is a property right being leased, it is not an “user fee” or “tax.”  Therefore, it is not subject to the Independent Offices Appropriations Act (IOAA), 31 U.S.C. 9701 et seq.  The opposing parties have claimed that the FAA is wrong on both counts.

Next Post: Analysis of FAA’s claims that it possesses a property interest in slots at airports.

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