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Last Month, Federal Officials Reported At Least 2 Drones Entered Buffalo Niagara International Airport Airspace, Including One That Hovered Over The Center of the Airport – Drones Also Spotted By Pilots & Air Traffic Controllers At Many Airports Frequented By Western New York Travelers, Including JFK & LaGuardia

Schumer Says that the FAA & The Office of Management & Budget Must Expedite the Release of New Drone Regulations That Would Draw Clear Lines for Legal & Illegal Drone Usage – The FAA Has Been Developing Drone Privacy & Usage Guidelines for Years; FAA Rule Has Made Some Progress & Is Now Sitting at Office of Management & Budget for Review

Schumer: FAA Drone Rules To Protect Buffalo Fliers’ Physical Safety Have Been Stuck in Federal Bureaucracy for Far Too Long

Today, at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to immediately move forward and release much-needed rules for the use of small unmanned aircraft systems, in light of recent revelations that there have been at least two instances of drones spotted flying above Buffalo Niagara International Airport, putting Buffalo air travelers at serious safety risk. Schumer also noted that recent near-miss incidents in which drones flew dangerously close to airplanes at airports frequented by Western New York travelers, like JFK and LaGuardia, underscores the need for these new rules. Schumer said that while there are innumerable benefits to this technology, there are also consequences that create serious safety concerns for the general public, particularly given that the Federal Aviation Administration and the federal Office of Management and Budget have not yet released clear rules for the definition and appropriate use of commercial and hobby drones, defining what is legal, and clearly illegal, like flying drones anywhere near an airport’s airspace. Schumer said that the federal government’s lack of clear rules on the use of small, non-military drones has led to confusion, abuses and other dangerous situations, particularly in urban areas like Buffalo. 

In August, Schumer urged the FAA to expedite their rule-making on small drones, which Congress originally authorized the agency to do in 2012. Since then, the FAA finally put out their rule to interagency review, which is headed by OMB. Schumer said that OMB must prioritize this approval process, which includes an assessment of costs, impact on industry and more, so that the rule can then be made public, put out for a comment period, and finalized. In light of the recent near-misses involving drones at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Schumer said today that the situation is more urgent than ever, and FAA and OMB must expedite the release of drone regulations.

“With recent instances of drones flying dangerously close to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, as well as airports frequented by Western New York travelers, like New York’s JFK and LaGuardia Airports, it is clear that commercial drone use has crossed from unregulated to potentially deadly,” said Schumer. “Federal bureaucracy has stood in the way of FAA drone rules to protect Upstate New York fliers’ safety, and it’s time for the OMB to review and approve the new drone regulations that the FAA has sent to their desk so that our airspace stays safe. The lack of clear rules about small drones, what is a commercial versus a hobby drone, and how and where they can be used, is creating a serious threat to Upstate New Yorkers’ safety. We cannot wait for a fatal crash or incident to get this done.”

Drones are unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that fall under three categories denoted by the Federal Aviation Authority: civil, public and model aircraft. The public unmanned aircraft systems are used by government agencies, law enforcement agencies and research institutions to aid in their operations. They are an incredibly important technology, and are helpful in collecting data, aiding with border patrol operations, agriculture, training the military and more. The civil unmanned aircraft systems and the model aircraft systems provide opportunities for civilians to use drones recreationally. Schumer supports the use of drones under all of these categories, but said that there must be clear limits to their usage when privacy and safety are threatened. Traditionally, drones were used to aid in military operations overseas. Drones have allowed the military to obtain information without putting American civilians in danger. Technological improvements have led private companies and individuals to purchase drones for prices as low as $500.

Drones have commercial applications that make them useful in terms of agricultural development, real estate sales and search and rescue missions. Specifically, drones can help farmers monitor their crops more effectively and may help realtors sell real estate by providing better photographs of for-sale properties. Drones can also be used to help firefighters spot wildfires and aid in search and rescue missions by locating missing individuals. Schumer said that there are innumerable benefits to drone technology, however, there are also consequences to the lack of regulation.

Over the summer, there were two cases of drones flying too close to the Buffalo Niagara Airport. In the first incident in August, the drone was reported to be hovering over the center of the airport and then departed to the southwest. Then in September, airport personnel reported what seemed to be the same drone from August hovering 2,000 feet above the intersection of two airport runways. Both of these incidents happened despite the fact that federal law prohibits UAS aircraft from flying higher than 400 feet. Schumer said there have also been numerous cases of drones flying too close to two airports that Western New York travelers frequent, including New York’s JFK Airport and LaGuardia Airport. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport, it provides an average of 100 non-stop flights and serves 22 airport destinations each day for its customers. Schumer noted that many of these flights are bringing travelers to New York City or are passing through New York City to connect travelers to other destinations, highlighting the fact that the lack of drone regulations is a problem for Western New York travelers even when they are traveling outside the Buffalo area.

Just last month, it was reported that a drone was seen within two miles of a runway at New York’s JFK Airport, and, according to the Washington Post, this past May a pilot flying into LaGuardia Airport spotted a drone at 5,500 feet in the air.  Schumer said that this is clearly an issue that extends beyond the Buffalo Niagara International Airport itself, and it means that Western New York travelers could be at risk anywhere there are drones in the vicinity of an airport. A few days prior to the November drone incident in New York City, the pilot of Virgin Atlantic Flight 9 from London reported a drone sighting at approximately 3,000 feet. And then, a Delta pilot on a flight from San Diego reported a drone flying dangerously close to the plane’s left wing. The plane was within 10 miles of Kennedy Airport.

Schumer said that while these drones used by companies and individuals are usually small they can do immense damage if they collide with a jet engine or a plane’s windshield. Schumer today said that as this technology becomes even more popular, it creates an even larger cause for concern in terms of airline and pedestrian safety. According to the Washington Post, as of June, there had been 15 cases of drones flying too close to airports in the last two years. Schumer said that number is rising. Since 2009, there have been 23 accidents and 236 incidents deemed “unsafe” by the FAA, in which registered civilian drones were involved. In many cases, the drones are too small and cannot be clearly identified on an airplane’s radar system.  

According to a recent article by the Buffalo News, an FAA report shows that it is becoming increasingly common for hobbyists to fly drones over commercial airports. According to the Buffalo News, there are about 25 drone sightings at airports per month nationwide; many of the pilots that report these instances say the drones were operating in dangerously close proximity to their aircraft. Schumer said that if drones are not regulated more closely, there could be many more sightings and dangerous situations throughout Upstate New York at airports like Buffalo Niagara. The Buffalo News article also referenced a 2013 report by the Australian Civil Aviation Authority, which said that a collision between a drone and a jet engine could lead to engine failure, and that a collision with a large drone could crash the windshield of a commercial aircraft. Schumer said this underscores the importance of knowing the definition and appropriate use of commercial and hobby drones, as well as defining what is legal, and clearly illegal, like flying drones anywhere near an airport’s airspace.

Schumer was joined by Adam Perry, NFTA Commissioner and Chair of the Aviation Committee; and Chief of the NFTA Police, George Gast.

"Aviation safety is paramount to our operations and the safety of the general public. As the Chair of NFTA’s Aviation Committee, I can’t stress enough the role safety has on our operations," said Adam Perry. "We realize that we are living in a dynamic world with ever changing technology. That’s why the Senator Schumer's push today for safer skies is so important to our operations. We applaud the Senator’s efforts and appreciate his ongoing support."

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act was passed in 2012 and established “a special rule for model aircraft.” A model aircraft is defined as an unmanned aircraft flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft and flown for recreational or hobby purposes. This law prohibits the FAA from promulgating rules for model aircraft that meet the following criteria: flown strictly for hobby and recreational use; operated within a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; weighs 55 pounds or less; not interfere with manned aircraft; the operator receives permission from the airport operator and control tower if the device is being flown within five miles of an airport. The FAA may take action if the model aircraft is operated in a way that endangers the national airspace. There have been concerns, however, about the distinction between commercial and hobby drones, and the FAA has yet to issue a rule for commercial drones.  In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress said the FAA should come up with a plan for safe integration of drones by September 2015. A recent inspector general’s report suggests the FAA may not meet this deadline.

Schumer today urged the FAA and OMB to move forward with drone regulations and get them out the door immediately. Schumer said that the FAA and OMB should expedite the release of new drone regulations that would finally draw clear lines for legal and illegal drone use.