Uber’s Flying Car Vision Won’t Fly Without NextGen

As first posted in Air Transport World, Nov. 23, 2016

Uber’s recent report outlining its vision for the potential of autonomous flying cars has captured the imagination of city dwellers and commuters worldwide. Who wouldn’t enjoy care-free flying in ten years that eliminates gridlock at 200mph?

The image of effortless, on-demand, point-to-point flight is intriguing.  While the vision of this type of transportation has been around since the Jetsons, the possible reality of such flight seems closer than ever. However, the actuality is that without significant investment in our nation’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), this futuristic vision will never get off the ground. While stories reporting Uber’s plans for flying taxis said the infrastructure is in place, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  But it could be within reach if Congress appropriately funds the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

As our vice president for civil aviation, Ali Bahrami said to CNN, “It’s great to have these ideas. It forces everyone to start thinking differently. Eventually we will get to that stage.  The reality is it won’t be as quick or optimistic as the paper seems to imply.”

So why is NextGen so critical? It is a comprehensive suite of upgrades, technologies and procedures that improves every phase of flight and enables aircraft to move more efficiently and safely from departure to arrival. This is key.  If these airborne Uber vehicles cannot fly direct to their destinations and safely maneuver without colliding, few riders will be willing to climb aboard.

So far, with initial NextGen capabilities already in place nationwide, the FAA has measured $1.6 billion in benefits to the airlines and the traveling public. They expect an additional $11.4 billion in benefits once other improvements are added over the next 15 years.  For the future of all drones to be realized, both large and small, a fully-functional NextGen system, improving the daily operations and safety of the entire air space is critical.

 Full support of NextGen is tied to a number of other actions associated with the FAA, but none more important than the FAA reauthorization, which has been stalled for more than a year. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 expired in 2015. That legislation took Congress more than four years and 23 extensions before the bill was passed!  As a result of this last painful reauthorization experience, AIA, along with other industry associations, worked hard to reach agreement early in the process and work with Congress to achieve timely reauthorization of the FAA.  Congress must quickly act to pass the FAA reauthorization early next year so we can move forward.  Too much is at stake to keep slowing the process with further extensions and maintaining an inadequate funding profile.

In addition to Uber’s vision, larger drones of all types are where the industry is rising to produce the next big thing. Drones capable of delivering all-types of goods and services, and even transporting people can become common-place once certification, see-and-avoid technologies and safe navigation are clear and ready.

So do we want new and exciting transportation options?  Do we want a future free from traffic jams and congested highways? Let’s not let a lack of investment in aviation infrastructure bar this new reality.

NextGen specifically will allow the flexibility needed for piloted aircraft and drones to operate safely together. And, while thousands of people will again find drones under their holiday trees this season, we can look forward to larger people-carrying versions in holidays to come.