Picketing the FAA is not an Effective Way to be Heard on Model Aircraft

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While a picket line in front of the Wilbur Wright Building may be a constitutionally protected Right to Petition, it is not the most useful method of convincing the FAA to change its views on UASs. There are other tactics which might affect the final Interpretation of the Model Aircraft Rules.

The belowpost (found at RCgroups.com) reflects the strong response of the Remote Control user group to the FAA’s Notice of Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft and Request for Comment, published in the Federal Register on June 23.2014. “smoothvirus”, it appears, initiated a dialogue about a street protest in front of 800 Independence. His note mentions that the group, DC Area Drone Users, intends to express its opposition to the FAA’s notice by such a visible action and to submit comments to the docket.

The FAA issued its “Do’s” and “Don’ts” in a press release and also published a similar document in the Federal Register. The formal publication made the same points as the “Do’s and Don’ts” in more technical terms. The FAA explained that its intent was to elucidate what the Congress meant when it established five criteria to qualify as Model Aircraft (P.L 112-95, section 336(a)(1)-(5)).

Most significantly, the notice explicitly called for comments on the Interpretation, specifically it requested responses to be in writing and where possible, including data or views on the FAA’s interpretation. The purpose of this public process is to accept different views which may serve as a basis for modification of the agency’s 17 pages of background, explanation and the analysis of the five statutory criteria.

This is a time honored process. Rarely does the FAA make major changes to the words which it so carefully crafted BEFORE issuing the notice. However, there are more than a few instances in which well-crafted comments have caused the FAA to reconsider their initial position. With such a high profile issue as UAS/UAV/RC/Model Aircraft, the request for comments is both sincere and likely to result in modifications in reply to thoughtfully written criticism.

Picketing or public protest is not a good method to convey precise critiques. The placards would not provide adequate text to display substantive rationales for the FAA revising the words of its Notice. Such an event is more likely to express the emotions of the participants and such anger is not going to motivate change within the building being picketed.

There are methods which have been shown to effect the process.

First and perhaps the most compelling is to participate by submitting articulate thoughts in response to the Model Aircraft Interpretation. An example of an observation which might cause the FAA to reconsider was expressed on the same RCgroups.com site. With the help of some artful drafting, such insights may cause the rule drafter to revise the Initial Interpretation.

Past submissions which take the time to redraft the specific wording and include a new language, have been copied and included in the FAA’s final version. The drafting should not be in the vernacular of the operator, but in the legalistic jargon of a regulator.

The arguments in support of a proposed position must be penned with the policies of the rule writer in mind, i.e. citing the positions expressed in the Interpretation or in other agency statements on UAS. The FAA is very receptive to submissions heavily based on safety and likely to be deaf to papers with litanies of economics, operational flexibilities or emotions.

Quality of comments has greater weight than quantity. A plethora of passionate pleas for freedom is not a good tactic. The best platform is an organization, which represents a large number of operators and/or manufacturers. A submission, which is scripted in thoughtful, technically supported points, is most likely to impact the process. The most powerful technique is to provide legally sound proposed alternative language to what the group finds particularly problematic in the initial Interpretation. Such a precise draft removes any doubt of what is intended and saves the FAA from trying to write what the organization means.

The FAA rule-making process has a number of “inception” points at which an outside group may be heard. As the proposed final Interpretation moves from the FAA to the review by the staff of Secretary of Transportation and then to the Office of Management and Budget, there are opportunities to explain to DoT and OMB why the FAA is wrong. Both “oversight” organizations have propensities to find fault with the FAA’s proposal. Neither governmental body has the same focus on safety; both have more comfort with economic issues.

Beyond written participation, there is the political option. Yes, the FAA abhors such “interference”, but a good strategy of written comments, hearings and other communications from key Members of the House and the Senate can work. Bludgeon tactics, i.e. an appropriations bill which “withdraws funds for the writing of a rule which…”, frequently will precipitate a reaction from another Member. The legislative avenue requires expert guidance.

Washington is a community based on information: knowledge about your business, understanding how the rulemaking process works, insights into who on the Hill is heard in the FAA, etc. Picketing does not contribute to this process; if DC Area Drone User Group really wants to help the FAA define reasonable rules about its members’ hobby, it should consider some of the above-mentioned alternatives.

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