IIT-Chicago Kent law student takes fight for FAA drone regulation info to federal court

By Hoang Tran | Nov 5, 2015

A second-year student at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has launched a legal fight with the Federal Aviation Administration over the agency’s lack of speed in responding to his request for information on the agency’s regulations of drone aircraft.

Albert J. Plawinski filed a complaint against the FAA in federal court in late September, asking a judge to order the federal regulatory agency to fulfill his request for agency records pertaining to Certificates of Authority issued under so-called “section 333 exemptions,” permitting commercial users to operate small unmanned aircraft.

Plawinski submitted the request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on June 5, and the FAA has yet to respond, Plawinski said.

“The documents I asked for would give a clearer picture about drone policy and would give an insight into what restrictions the FAA places on commercial drone operators,” Plawinski said. “The FAA never responded to my FOIA request. Once the statutory deadline approached for the FAA to produce documents, I emailed them and asked for status. I then found out that the FAA received my request but never forwarded it to the proper person. Several more email exchanges revealed that the FAA simply made every excuse possible instead of producing the documents. Frustrated, I filed this lawsuit.”

Section 333 grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a drone to operate safely in the National Airspace System.

The FOIA request for information submitted by Plawinksi was acknowledged by the FAA on June 8 and assigned to a FOIA management specialist. That same say, it was reassigned to another agent. Twenty days later, Plawinski still had none of the documents.

Plawinski said he desired to know the contents of those documents because it would help research he is doing with law professor Henry H. Perritt Jr., director of the graduate program in financial services law at IIT-Chicago Kent, for several legal publications about drones.

“I found that this information is critical to any legal analysis in this field and in tracking FAA policy. After all, citizens in this country are entitled to this information. It all should be publicly available,” he said.

Making information publicly available was one of the purposes of the lawsuit, according to Plawinski.

“This lawsuit is about transparency. It is difficult for people to make any kind of analysis without understanding exactly what is going on behind the scenes,” he said. “Currently, anyone can access the FAA’s website and examine the Section 333 exemption, but the exemption does not tell the entire story.”

He said the documents will show what actual restrictions the FAA places on Section 333 exemption holders; presently, researchers must rely on “assumptions about those restrictions,” he said.

“It is difficult to make or suggest policy based on missing data,” Plawinski said.

He said the research, analysis and policy suggestions will focus on drone safety, a topic which has held his interest since his undergraduate days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He said the desire to make the skies safe is something he believes he and the FAA share. Plawinski said he believes the FAA should keep an eye on the sky, but with some caveats.

“I believe the FAA should regulate drones, but the FAA needs to come up with common-sense and comprehensive regulations. Furthermore, individual states and municipalities must follow and introduce their own legislation that will eliminate any areas not addressed by the federal laws,” he said. “I understand that legislators tend to over-regulate new technology that they are not familiar with. Nevertheless, I believe the FAA is on the right track with some of the proposed rules that will allow them to regulate drones, but also allow more people to use drones commercially without a large burden on licensing and registration that currently plagues the process.”

The best solution, according to the law student, is a middle ground between regulation and invasion.

As for the FOIA request, Plawinski still has yet to receive a response from the FAA, even after filing his lawsuit.

“Prior to filing, however, the FAA claimed the information is already online, but they will send me a link,” he said. “Neither of those is true.”

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