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14 CFR 91.1 defines the applicability of part 91. This paragraph defines two areas of jurisdiction where certain parts of part 91 apply:

  • within the United States, including the waters within 3 nautical miles of the U.S. coast
  • the airspace overlying the waters between 3 and 12 nautical miles from the coast of the United States

By exclusion the third area is the airspace overlying waters beyond 12 nautical miles from the coast of the Unites States. Part 91 therefore does not apply in this area. The FAA explicitly states this in letters of interpretation, for example, in Di Marco (2008).

The term "coast" appears to be undefined in any readily available FAA resources.

How are we to understand this term as applied to the scope of applicability of §91? For example, would a shore of one of the Great Lakes—Lake Huron for example—be considered a "coast" for this purpose? To apply the question more specifically, would a pilot be required to comply with the 250 knot rule of §91.117 if below 10,000 ft while 15 miles off the US shore over Lake Huron.

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    $\begingroup$ I don’t know. But, wouldn’t the coastline of any part of the Great Lakes within the internationally accepted borders of the United States be a moot point. After all, the regs state “this part prescribes rules governing the operation of aircraft within the United States, including the waters within 3 nautical miles of the U.S. coast.” The waters of Lake Huron within our borders are therefore covered regardless of their distance from shore since they are within the United States. The word “including” just extends the jurisdiction of the US to waters outside of our border. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jun 26 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ Ignoring regulations for a moment, lakes usually have "shores"; the word "coast" always means the sea to me. Do people talk about the "coast of Lake Huron"? Laws and regulations generally only define words when they differ from common usage, or for precision. It seems likely to me that "coast" isn't defined because it's 'obvious' what it means. This could be a law.SE or even an ell.SE question, if you don't get a good answer here. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jun 26 at 4:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife I agree with you. Coast, coastline, coastal waters, coastguard all mean the sea. I'm not from the US, but it seems very clear what the legislation refers to $\endgroup$ – Dan Jun 26 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ @pondlife @ Dan Multiple regulations or codes specifically reference the Great Lakes as international waters or as having coastlines. See for example 46 USC 12.120. $\endgroup$ – J Walters Jun 26 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ Careful with that assumption, @Dan, the Coast Guard does patrol the Great Lakes, and they do rescue work on in-land lakes and rivers as well. Otherwise I agree with you 100%. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jun 26 at 15:39
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Coastline means the territorial sea baseline. In the language of international treaties like UNCLOS, the territorial sea doesn't include internal waters, regardless of their size. NOAA confirms this, notes however also, that not all US court decisions follow that view. NOAA also provides a map to view the US territorial waters & exclusive economical zone, which shows that the great lakes are neither.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer - are you certain the FAA lives by these definitions? (Logic indicates they should, but that's not guaranteed.) $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jun 26 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan no, I just know international maritime law and answered the question from this perspective, so it might not be a full answer, if someone has some FAA specific information, that'd be of course even better. $\endgroup$ – Florian Jun 26 at 15:44
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As @Florian answers, the short answer is that we actually need to look at the term "baseline," which is the legal term used in international treaties.

The authority for FAA jurisdiction over the airspace defined in §91.1 is given in 49 USC  40103. This is shown in the official Federal Register docket of 14 CFR 91.1 which lists all authority basis for the regulation. 49 USC  40103 states in pertinent part:

(a)Sovereignty and Public Right of Transit.— (1)The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.

For the purposes of this code, the legal term "United States" is previously defined in 49 USC 40102 as:

(46)“United States” means the States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the territories and possessions of the United States, including the territorial sea and the overlying airspace.

So to understand what the FAA actually has jurisdiction over, we actually need to understand what the term "territorial sea" means, so we know what the FAA meant by "coast."

In 1988 US president Ronald Reagan issued proclamation 5928 which declared that the US is sovereign over the territorial seas and defines this as the area extending 12 NM from the baselines of the United States.

This NOAA page defines the baselines as the low-tide line of water along the coast as charted on certain NOAA maps. That page also defines "territorial seas" as waters that extend seaward from the baseline up to 12 NM. I think water past that would be international waters with freedom of passage for any nationality. More specific to this discussion, that same page defines a separate term, "internal waters", as opposed to "territorial seas" :

Internal waters are the waters on the landward side of the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. Each coastal State has full sovereignty over its internal waters as if they were part of its land territory. The right of innocent passage does not apply in internal waters. Examples of internal waters include bays, rivers and even lakes that are connected to the sea, e.g., the Great Lakes.

So based on the NOAA sources, the Great Lakes are specifically excluded from Territorial Seas for this purpose, and by extension, for FAA purposes since the FAA authority is derived from the same basis.

In the absence of a specific FAA provided definition, these combined facts are probably the best answer to this question.

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