The owners of a Pennsylvania FBO found an unwelcome surprise in the mail following a routine banner tow mission in April: a $1,000 summons from a township 80 miles south, issued under a local ordinance banning aerial advertising.
The pilot was operating on April 21 under VFR, and there is no marking on any aeronautical chart, nor any notam to suggest towing a banner over Radnor Township, Pa., could lead to legal trouble. The FAA has never imposed any such restriction, and no local community in the country has authority to do so.
The April 21 summons issued to Valley Aviation, a flight school and FBO located at Wilkes-Barre Wyoming Valley Airport, is the first attempt by Radnor Township to impose a fine that AOPA is aware of. AOPA has successfully opposed the enacting of similar ordinances in other places around the country in years past.
Jim Scrobola, one of Valley Aviation’s owners, said opposing the fine—and the local ordinance—was a matter of principle. The owners hired an attorney to challenge the summons in court.
“This affects everybody in aviation, not just us,” Scrobola said.
Noting that the FAA has sole jurisdiction to regulate national airspace, AOPA backed the flight school’s fight. The association sent Radnor Township officials a letter in June requesting dismissal of the charge, and a review by local officials of their municipal prohibition against aerial advertising.
“Basically, we’re asking the board to recognize the FAA’s authority, as Congress intended,” said AOPA Senior Government Analyst of Air Traffic Services Melissa McCaffrey.
Magisterial District Judge John C. Tuten agreed, indicating during a July 17 hearing that the charge will be dismissed or treated as a finding of “not guilty,” according to attorney Zachary Davis, of the Philadelphia law firm retained by Scrobola and his fellow owners. Scrobola said the AOPA letter was helpful to making their case that the charge is precluded by federal law.
“You helped the case,” Scrobola told AOPA Online.
The FAA’s sole jurisdiction over the National Airspace System has not prevented municipal efforts to regulate aircraft in years past. AOPA in 2002 submitted comments to officials in Huntington Beach, Calif., who had drafted a similar ordinance against aerial advertising, and the ordinance was eventually scrapped (after the FAA also weighed in). In 2005, an Ohio town tried to do the same, and AOPA and the FAA both worked to reverse that course.
McCaffrey noted it is not possible for pilots to familiarize themselves with the local ordinances of every city and town they may pass over, and that is one of the reasons why Congress reserved rulemaking and regulatory authority over our nation’s airspace for the FAA alone.
“Pilots flying over any township could potentially get citations for things that they’re not aware of,” McCaffrey said. “It’s very unrealistic, and that’s the whole point.”
Radnor Township includes various unincorporated communities, and is home to Villanova University, among other noteworthy institutions. According to the summons, the banner tow flight was observed at the intersection of North Wayne and Lancaster Avenues at 12:29 p.m. on April 21. That spot is 7.67 nautical miles from the Runway 6 threshold at Wings Field, the birthplace of AOPA.