Debate continues: will small jets overburden FAA resources?

 - November 7, 2006, 4:50 AM

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Transportation Department Inspector General are questioning whether the FAA’s safety inspectors and air traffic controllers will be able to cope with the introduction of very light jets (VLJ) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

In testimony before the House aviation subcommittee, Todd Zinser, acting inspector general of the DOT, told lawmakers that VLJ manufacturers expect their aircraft to find a niche among a variety of corporate and private owners and on-demand air-taxi operators. The FAA predicts that approximately 5,000 VLJs will be vying for airspace by 2017, he said, flying in the same skies as passenger aircraft operated by the airlines.

“VLJs could also lead to an influx of a new class of pilots, possibly resulting in human-factors issues,” warned Zinser. “The pilots of these aircraft are expected to come from general and corporate aviation, air-taxi operations and private ownership. The potential mix of pilot experience levels will demand a new standard in flight training.”

He added that VLJs could have an effect on the workloads of FAA inspectors and air traffic controllers, which he described as challenges that the FAA must prepare to address.

Gerald Dillingham, GAO director of physical infrastructure issues, said some manufacturers are even more optimistic than the FAA about the number of VLJs that will be manufactured. They predict there may be as many as 10,000 VLJs operating in the National Airspace System (NAS) by 2020.

“If this sector expands as quickly as expected, FAA inspectors could face workload challenges to expeditiously issue and monitor certificates,” he told the aviation panel. “In addition, air traffic controllers could face the challenge of further congested airspace, especially at and near smaller airports, where VLJs are expected to be prevalent because of their smaller size and shorter runway requirements.”

UAVs Prompt Safety Concerns
Dillingham and Zinser also cautioned about the increasing use of UAVs. Last year the FAA issued 50 certificates to operate UAVs. By June this year, the agency had issued another 55.

“While historically UAVs have been used primarily by the Department of Defense in military settings outside the United States,” Dillingham testified, “there is a growing demand to operate UAVs domestically in the [NAS].”

Federal agencies such as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local law enforcement agencies are interested in UAVs for border security, search-and-rescue, firefighting and other  homeland security initiatives.

Aircraft operated by a government agency are considered “public aircraft” and the certification and oversight of those aircraft is the responsibility of the applicable federal agency, not the FAA. These public operations are, however, required to comply with certain FAA regulations, especially those that ensure that the operation of these aircraft does not compromise the safety of the NAS.

Last April a CBP Predator, a drone as large as some commuter aircraft, crashed in Arizona, reportedly within several hundred feet of homes. According to preliminary incident reports, the ground operator used the wrong procedures and accidentally shut off the drone’s engine.