Getting the Environment Right for Future Aviation Innovation

Today, we travel the world at speeds we previously thought impossible. Goods and services move through supply chains that span every corner of the globe to fuel our modern economy. We explore space, and satellite technology links computers and cell phones around the world to keep information at our fingertips in even the most remote locations.

New aviation technologies offer the promise of continued profound impacts in the coming decades. Supersonic and hypersonic travel will make it possible to travel half-way around the world and back again in a single day. Drones will deliver our packages and air taxis will fly us around cities – cutting our commute times and reducing congestion on our roads. These are just the technologies that exist today.

This future isn’t on autopilot, however. There are significant challenges to making this optimistic vision for the future real. How do we integrate new technologies safely? How do we expand capacity to accommodate new and increasing traffic? What outdated technologies and processes must be replaced to allow for growth and new technologies? How do we design a system that can accommodate change both now and in the future?

The good news is that we know what action is needed today to drive this future: action by industry, Congress and the Administration, working together. One of the most important tools we have at our disposal is the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). It is beginning to deliver big benefits. For example, new precision navigation systems are allowing aircraft to be managed with much less intervention – improving efficiency while further enhancing safety. At least as important, FAA has shown great willingness to work with industry to ensure new technologies, such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), can operate safely within our airspace.

But in order for FAA and our air traffic control system to support these new technologies, it is a matter of urgency that government regulations, procedures and processes be reviewed and revised to ensure they are futureproof and flexible enough to accommodate technologies that are not even on our horizon.

In particular, the FAA will need to build upon its current risk-based approach to safety. New technologies should be treated proportionally both to the hazard they pose to the general public and to the environment in which they will operate. For example, air taxis in crowded city airspaces will need much more careful regulation than small surveillance systems inspecting pipelines in sparsely-populated wilderness.

The FAA should set out its vision of how airspace will be operated beyond the initial, and very important, improvements that will be delivered by NextGen – Next NextGen, if you will – including requirements for aircraft operating in different types of airspace. We don’t know yet what the future will hold. It’s important that FAA institute a system of regulation that clearly delineates how new technologies can be integrated safely into our airspace without knowing or limiting what those new technologies might be.

This will ensure manufacturers and operators of new technology can work from the outset to ensure their products are compatible with the system and will reduce the burden on both industry and regulators, leading to quicker approvals.

And because this also will require global integration of national and regional air traffic systems, FAA must provide global leadership to ensure there is harmonization of these requirements internationally.

The solutions are on the way. FAA is already partnering closely with industry on NextGen deployment, the UAS Integration Pilot Program, electronic aircraft certification and international efforts to define noise requirements for supersonic transport. Additionally, FAA already has shown it can adapt to new pressures and innovation with changes to its Aircraft Certification regime to minimize the regulatory burden and unleash American innovation while maintaining its unrivaled safety record.

Congress also needs to play a role in realizing this vision. First, Congress must give FAA the mandate to prepare for the future through the reauthorization process. The House passed its version back in April, but the Senate has yet to take up its version. Short-term extensions of operating authority do not give FAA the necessary political direction to undertake significant changes in approach.

Congress also must make sure FAA is structured such that safety, the National Airspace System, and new technologies are considered in harmony. These elements must reinforce each other, not conflict with each other, if we are to safely integrate new technologies into our airspace.

Congress also must ensure adequate and long-term funding for FAA and its various modernization projects. Continuing resolutions, while marginally better than a government shutdown, do not provide appropriate or predictable levels of funding to ensure continued progress on key contracts.

Finally, Congress should carry out a full review of what FAA needs to do to ensure benefits of new technologies – now and in the future – are fully realized. As part of its oversight responsibilities, Congress then should conduct a full review to make sure the recommendations are properly implemented.

America is on the brink of a brave new world when it comes to innovation in aviation if we can provide the right policies, regulatory environment, and resources that make it possible. The aerospace and defense industry is ready to work with government to ensure that vision is realized.

David Silver is the Vice President for Civil Aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), with more than 20 years of experience in aviation, working extensively on aircraft design, regulatory and legislative issues. He also has an array of experience in working and collaborating with a variety of international organizations involved in certification and validation programs for aviation.