You’ve often read in these pages that one of USPA’s main roles is to safeguard skydiving’s rightful place in airspace and on airports. Federal Aviation Administration policy has long recognized skydiving as a regulated aeronautical activity within the nation’s airspace and on the 3,000-plus U.S. airports that have accepted FAA funds for improvements. Those federal airport dollars come with the stipulation that the airport must fairly accommodate all types of aeronautical activity, including skydiving. There is not blanket approval for access to those airports, though. The busiest airports can legitimately deny skydiving for reasons of safety. It’s no coincidence that the busiest airports are also the airports that most drop zone operators want to avoid.
Increasingly, smaller airports are eager to accommodate skydiving; some have even searched and advertised for a DZ. But there are a few airports that want to deny our sport because it simply doesn’t fit their idea of who their airport should serve. Occasionally, an airport that accommodates a DZ changes its mind and tries to force the DZ to relocate. In most of these cases, if negotiations break down, USPA teams up with the DZ owner (or prospective DZ owner) to use the tool the FAA provides to ensure federally funded airports are not unfairly denying access for skydiving. That tool is found in Part 16 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations and is known as the Part 16 formal complaint process. Under the process, the agency receives a written complaint and reviews the facts to determine whether the airport is meeting its obligations to fairly accommodate all aeronautical activity and the denial of access is for legitimate reasons of airport safety.
USPA doesn’t team with every DZO (existing or prospective) who gets an airport’s denial. We first assess several factors. Did the DZO prepare and engage professionally with the airport? Is the DZ proposal realistic given the specific airport and airspace in question? Does the DZO have the time and finances to see the case through? Does skydiving have a better than even chance of winning the case? If won, will the case establish precedent that can be used by other DZ proponents? If the answers are yes, then USPA Director of Government Relations Randy Ottinger and aviation attorney Rick Durden begin working with the DZO in drafting the initial Part 16 complaint. The DZO will need patience; a Part 16 final determination can take the FAA years to produce.
Since 2009, USPA has participated in eight successful Part 16 complaints. Seven were outright wins: The FAA found that skydiving was being unfairly denied airport access and ordered airport management to take steps to accommodate skydiving. In the eighth case, the DZ operator reached an agreement with the airport to accommodate skydiving and withdrew the Part 16 complaint. USPA doesn’t limit its help to strategizing and wordsmithing written complaints. Since 2011, USPA’s member-supported Airport Access and Defense Fund has paid more than $85,000 toward the necessary legal fees, which the supported DZOs match.
A Part 16 win hasn’t always resulted in a new DZ. The process can take several years, and sometimes the DZ proponent is tapped out or just loses interest. Even in those cases, though, a Part 16 win strengthens the concept that skydiving must be given airport access unless there are strong, verifiable safety reasons for denial. And we all win when “skydiving’s rightful place” is strengthened and solidified.