It has been nearly a year since the FAA ended its battle with Raphael Pirker over allegations of careless and reckless operation of his UAS. Since then, the FAA’s enforcement actions have been devoted to education and gentle reminders to first time violators about the rules. Those of us who know the long history of FAA enforcement have warned that it is only a matter of time before the FAA hit someone with a really substantial fine. Well, that day has finally arrived.
In a press release issued today, the FAA announced it was proposing a civil penalty against SkyPan International for $1.9 million. According to the FAA:
Between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized operations in some of our most congested airspace and heavily populated cities, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules, the FAA alleges. These operations were illegal and not without risk.
The FAA claims that the penalty is warranted for these 65 flights because “the aircraft lacked an airworthiness certificate and effective registration, and SkyPan did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.” According to the FAA’s website, SkyPan received a Section 333 Exemption on April 17, 2015.
The FAA is also seeking additional penalties for 43 of the flights, claiming that they were unsafe:
SkyPan operated the 43 flights in the New York Class B airspace without receiving an air traffic control clearance to access it, the FAA alleges. Additionally, the agency alleges the aircraft was not equipped with a two-way radio, transponder, and altitude-reporting equipment.
So, why is this proposed penalty so high, while the proposed penalty against Mr. Pirker was only $10,000? The answer is the “multiplier effect.” Under FAA enforcement guidelines, each flight is a violation, and if more than one regulation is violated on a flight, there can be multiple penalties for each flight. In addition, the amount of the penalty for each flight can vary depending on whether you are a large or small business and the risk from each flight.
While we will have to wait to see how the FAA calculated the proposed penalty in this case to know for certain, it appears that the FAA is seeking a penalty for each of the 65 flights as illegal commercial operations, as well as seeking an additional penalty for the 43 flights they claim were performed in class B airspace.
This proposed civil penalty confirms our advice to operators who continue to fly “below the radar” without authorization. While you might just get a warning if you get caught, if the FAA decides to pursue you, your entire flight history will be open to examination and possible penalty, and the cost might be far more than you expect.
(Originally posted October 6, 2015)