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Going Direct: Why States Rights Are Bad For Aviation

A court ruling puts the principle of FAA control at risk. Why that’s something aviation can’t live with.

When the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on a liability suit by a pilot’s widow over an allegedly faulty engine that caused the crash that killed the woman’s husband, they opened a can of worms, angry, radioactive worms, that they most likely didn’t intend to open.

The court ruled that while the FAA should still be in charge of airspace and flying rules and pilot certification, it should defer to states when it comes to product law.

This is a horrible mistake, and here’s why.

When an airplane or certificated part for it is manufactured, the maker has to ensure that it meets the Federal Aviation Administration’s standards, which is no mean feat. It’s an expensive, time-consuming and often difficult to achieve goal, but it has the effect of ensuring that the planes we fly on are built in a way that conforms to a high level of safety both in the way it’s designed and the way it’s manufactured.

When Cirrus makes a part in Duluth, Minnesota, it’s going by the same sets of rules that Cessna uses when it makes a part in Wichita, Kansas. That’s as it should be—an even playing field among competitors regardless of where they build their wares.

Remember that when a plane takes off from Teterboro, New Jersey, heading for Van Nuys, California, the plane will most likely arrive with the same components as when it took off. Just as the airspace and the rules of the road within that space is continuous, the aircraft that transit that airspace are, too. At least for now.


Now imagine a scenario where the legislature of Kansas gets to enact rules about product manufacturing that can be different from those in Minnesota, for instance. And Washington can do the same, as can North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Delaware. You’d have a 50-state hodgepodge of regulations that would make designing and building a product an impossibility, at least if the manufacturer has any hope of protecting itself from future claims, which we all know are a huge burden on aircraft manufacturing.

The idea behind a state’s right to regulate itself is part of the fabric of America, but so, too, is the idea that for activities that cross state lines, the federal government should make the rules. This goes for everything from interstate highways to interstate finance, but most importantly to us, interstate aviation, which is to say, aviation.

AOPA filed a friend of the court brief with the United States Supreme Court asking the court to talk some sense into the Third Circuit Court, using essentially the same reasoning that I’m using here. Let’s hope that the court decides to listen and take the appropriate action to protect the greatest engine of commerce our country has ever known, our skies.


Photo by Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia Commons

If you want more insightful commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.


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