Who Owns the Air?

Chi Birmingham
Chi Birmingham / Chi Birmingham

For centuries, whoever owned the soil owned the air above it. That principle worked well when the only disputes about airspace involved the occasional wayward kite, but airplanes changed everything. In 1926, the agency now known as the FAA declared the air above 500 feet public domain. The FAA didn’t address the air under that mark until 1946, when a North Carolina chicken farmer named Thomas Causby complained that military planes flying over his coops frightened his chickens to death. He sued the government, and the Supreme Court ruled that property owners own 83 feet of airspace above their homes (that’s how high the airplanes were flying over Causby’s coops). That left a section of the sky up for grabs: the space above 83 feet but below 500 feet. It’s still unresolved. And with drones soon to be puttering around, the debate is heating up again.