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Aviation

Steptoe’s aviation practice focuses on the representation of domestic and foreign air carriers, their trade associations, and other aviation entities, in a variety of administrative, judicial and commercial settings.  We are particularly noted for our representation of airlines and other aviation industry interests before federal agencies and involving airport matters, and our advice to our clients on the legal issues associated with the increasing globalization of the airline industry, including representing the views of the foreign airline community on issues arising from US laws and policies that purport to have extraterritorial reach.  Our lawyers also have substantial experience in aircraft leasing matters, and the firm is equipped to handle any type of aircraft acquisition transaction.

We represent clients in a full range of matters that relate to air transportation of passengers and property, including matters arising before the Department of Transportation (DOT), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Homeland Security (including the Transportation Security Administration), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the taxation of air transportation services, airline alliances, enforcement proceedings, rulemakings, the acquisition of required economic and safety authorities, the regulation of global distribution systems, relationships with travel agents and other transportation intermediaries, immigration and customs matters, hazardous materials, and aviation safety and security issues. 

We advise aviation clients on a variety of legal matters arising from their business operations in the US, such as airport and other property leases, arrangements with service vendors and ground handling companies, tax issues and employment matters.

In the domestic arena, Steptoe’s aviation practice centers on US-based airlines and their trade associations in connection with the airlines’ efforts to ensure that decisions of the FAA, DOT, TSA and local airport proprietors are lawful and reasonable.  We have represented several airlines in challenges to FAA, DOT and TSA fees, rules and regulations, and have pursued rates and charges litigation on behalf of airlines at airports throughout the United States.  We also represent airlines and their trade associations in seeking judicial and administrative rulings that state and local laws and court cases are preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

Internationally, we act for foreign airlines with respect to codeshare agreements and joint business alliances; activities to secure antitrust immunity or clearance in the US and jurisdictions worldwide; advertising law, patent, trademark, copyright and other intellectual property issues, and in matters pertaining to antitrust litigation in the US and Europe.

We also advise clients with respect to the commercial operation of unmanned aircraft.

In addition, we counsel aviation clients on a variety of legal matters arising from their business operations in the US, such as airport and other property leases, arrangements with service vendors and ground handling companies, tax issues and employment matters. We also advise clients with respect to travel distribution issues, including issues pertaining to computerized reservations services and travel agencies.

Our practice addresses areas such as hazardous materials transportation, US economic sanctions, and international trade regulations. Capitalizing on broad-based cross-practice capabilities, Steptoe provides its aviation clients with experienced tax and litigation counsel. Tax concerns are often addressed through the use of complex treaty provisions and reciprocity principles.  Steptoe lawyers have extensive experience in representing airlines and other aviation interests in complex antitrust cases and investigations, including matters concerning both passenger and cargo transportation.  The firm has also been at the forefront of advising clients on the legal issues associated with the increasing globalization of the airline industry.  We have counseled carriers on a broad range of aviation matters arising under international agreements and have advised with respect to international arbitration proceedings conducted under such agreements.  We have, for example, advised on the international law implications of US efforts to regulate matters such as security procedures applicable outside the US, drug and alcohol testing of foreign airline employees, taxation of the sale of frequent flyer mileage credits, and gambling on board foreign-flag aircraft operating outside US airspace.

Drawing on the resources of our prominent tax practice, Steptoe is able to offer a full range of tax services on federal, state, and local tax matters to its aviation clients.  We also counsel clients on issues arising from the growing number of user fees imposed on airlines, as well as issues involving fees for over-flying the United States and other nations.  Steptoe lawyers represent their aviation clients in all types of commercial and transactional matters, including aircraft financing transactions, contracts with airframe and engine manufacturers and service vendors, commercial arrangements with consolidators and travel agents, trademark matters, relationships with software suppliers, cyber-law issues, and relations with airports and ground handling firms.  Steptoe lawyers have substantial experience in aircraft leasing matters, and the firm is equipped to handle any type of aircraft acquisition transaction. 

Domestic Aviation Representative Matters

  • Over the last three years we have represented multiple airlines in federal and state court litigation where we have successfully obtained dismissal of putative class action claims on the ground that the allegations were preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act.
  • We are currently representing the City of Ontario in connection with its efforts to obtain the return of Ontario International Airport in order to reverse the serious decline in air passenger service that has occurred since 2008.
  • We represent airlines before DOT, FAA and the US courts relating to airport access and gate accommodation issues.
  • In 2012 and 2013 we represented domestic carriers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in extensive sessions and negotiations leading up to the entry of a new use and lease agreement for landing fees and terminal charges.
  • In 2007, we served as lead trial counsel for seven US airlines challenging millions of dollars in new airport terminal charges at Los Angeles International Airport. The US Department of Transportation, on June 15, 2007, ruled that the new charges unjustly discriminated against the air carriers and ordered the airport to refund all of the unlawful fees. Alaska Airlines, Inc. et al. v. Los Angeles World Airports, et al., Docket No. OST-2007-27331 (LAX III), Final Decision, Order 2007-6-8 (available at http://www.Regulations.gov). The ruling sets important legal precedent, provides critical protections to air carriers against unjust discrimination by airports, and should result in more than 100 million dollars in refunds and cost savings to the affected airlines at LAX. The case is highlighted in "A Tale of Two Airports: Why DOT Found Unjust Discrimination Against Airlines at LAX But Not at Newark," Issues in Aviation Law and Policy ¶ 20,431 (October 2007).
  • We also represented the same seven US Airlines in the multiple challenges to the DOT LAX III decision filed in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. In August 2009, the DC Circuit issued its decision, affirming important aspects of the DOT decision and remanding other issues to the agency. Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. DOT, 575 F.3d 750 (D.C. Cir. 2009). Among other things, the Court agreed with the complainant airlines that DOT had improperly failed to explain why LAX could use fair market value to set terminal charges but not airfield fees. The Court also agreed with the airlines that LAX’s monopoly power was relevant to the issue of whether LAX’s terminal charges were lawful.
  • We represented several airlines in a DC Circuit Court challenge to the imposition by the US Transportation and Security Administration of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional "Aviation Security Infrastructure Fees" (ASIF) for screening passengers and property at US airports. In February 2009, the Court held that the fee increase was unlawful because the TSA improperly included the cost of screening non-passengers in its calculations for the cost increase. Southwest Airlines Co. v. Transportation Security Admin., 554 F.3d 1065 (D.C. Cir. 2009).
  • We represented the Air Transport Association (ATA) and several major airlines in administrative litigation before the DOT and in federal court litigation challenging landing fee surcharges imposed by a local governmental entity (Tinicum Township) at Philadelphia International Airport. In March 2008, the DOT granted the ATA’s petition for an order declaring that the landing fees violate the Anti-Head Tax Act because the township does not own or operate the airport. We represented ATA as an intervenor in the township’s appeal of the DOT decision, and in September 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit denied the township’s appeal. Township of Tinicum v. DOT, 582 F.3d 482 (3rd Cir. 2009).
  • We defended major US airlines in class actions alleging that the carriers improperly collected Mexican tourist taxes from exempt passengers. In January 2010 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling of a federal court in San Francisco which had dismissed the class action complaint challenging improper collection of the tax. McMullen v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 2010 WL 55526 (January 5, 2010).
  • We have successfully obtained dismissal of patent infringement claims pending in the United States against international air carriers.
  • In 2009, we successfully represented a major Latin American airline sued in a class action for allegedly failing to comply with requirements for notifying passengers of their rights after being involuntarily denied boarding.
  • On multiple occasions we successfully pursued cases on behalf of a coalition of international airlines that challenged air traffic control user fees imposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration on flights that do not take off or land in the US (overflights). E.g., Air Transport Association of Canada v. FAA, 323 F.3d 1093(D.C. Cir. April 8, 2003). These cases resulted in refunds of several millions of dollars plus cost savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars for the international aviation community. We also played an important role in successfully challenging the same type of user fees in 1998. Asiana Airlines v. FAA, 134 F.3d 393(D.C. Cir. 1998). Our experience in these cases is detailed in the Spring 2006 edition of the Journal of Air Law and Commerce in an article entitled "Will it Happen Again? — FAA’s Disastrous Prior Experience with User Fees."
  • In 2009, we represented the National Airline Council of Canada in negotiations with the FAA over FAA’s plans to increase the overflight fees.
  • In 2006 and 2009, we represented the Air Transport Association of Canada in challenging the US Department of Agriculture’s attempt to increase the fees charged for inspection of aircraft entering the United States for compliance with the US laws regarding agricultural products.
  • We also represented an airline challenging passenger facility charges imposed by the airports in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Memphis. Northwest Airlines, Inc. v. FAA, 14 F.3d 64 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

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