Airlines, pilots, and air traffic controllers are calling on Congress to give the FAA full authority to regulate so-called hobby unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, following a highly publicized incident earlier this month in which a drone flew above a Frontier Airlines Airbus A320 on approach to Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) and recorded the encounter.
In a letter to lawmakers, the Air Line Pilots Association, Airlines For America, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association called for the FAA to modify Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which prohibits the agency from regulating model aircraft, including drones that weigh less than 55 pounds and are flown for non-commercial purposes. While operating restrictions, such as a 400-foot maximum altitude, are in place, they are not always being followed, and the rule leaves no room to add layers of safety to further mitigate risk, the groups argued.
“Small drones are very difficult to visually acquire by pilots in flight or by air traffic controllers in the tower, and small drones do not currently have electronic anti-collision technologies that are compatible with airline collision-avoidance systems," the groups' letter said. "However, equipped with anti-collision technology, flight crews would likely be aware of the drone’s proximate location soon enough to take evasive action that would ensure that there was no threat of collision with the drone." Even if such technology is developed, the rule's language prohibits FAA from requiring it, the groups pointed out in the letter.
The February 12 letter came shortly after a video emerged of a drone flying illegally above an active approach path near Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS). The video, shot from the drone and posted to a Facebook group and then to YouTube, shows the UAS flying over Las Vegas. Soon, the A320—apparently on final approach to LAS—flies into the frame. The drone, clearly above the 400-foot maximum altitude ceiling for so-called hobby UASs, films the A320 passing underneath, clear enough to show the aircraft's registration number. The LAS video came weeks after a similar encounter, the groups said.
“We strongly urge you to remove legislative restrictions that have been placed on the FAA that limit its safety oversight of UAS," the groups wrote. "The likelihood that a drone will collide with an airline aircraft is increasing. By providing the FAA with the full authority to regulate all UAS operations, the safety of passenger and cargo flights will be protected."