Airline Pilots Engaged on Issue of Unmanned Aircraft

 - September 2, 2013, 10:35 AM
The FAA has authorized ConocoPhillips to use the catapult-launched Insitu ScanEagle to monitor whale migrations and ice floes in the Chukchi Sea. (Photo: Insitu)

Two years out from the September 2015 deadline the U.S. Congress established to introduce unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) into the nation’s airspace system, airline pilots are engaged in the process of developing standards and practices that UAS operators will follow.

Sean Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines pilot and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) first vice president, describes UASs as “a top safety and strategic focus” for the pilots’ union. He said ALPA is participating in UAS working groups with the Federal Aviation Administration, standards organization RTCA and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

“There is a huge responsibility, especially when you start looking at integrated operations [with manned aircraft], to understand the capabilities of these things, the responsibilities for safe separation, operating around airport traffic areas and so on,” Cassidy told AIN. “Clearly, I think anybody who is realistic understands the world will be inclusive of UASs in the future. If that’s the case, we want to make sure that it’s done as safely as possible and that the importance of having professional pilots operate these things is recognized.”

Airlines for America (A4A), the trade organization that represents major U.S. airlines, and the International Air Transport Association have issued no position statements on UASs. Last November, A4A joined a coalition of aviation organizations in sending a letter to the FAA on the subject. The letter called upon the agency to concentrate on safety–rather than privacy issues–in carrying out the congressional mandate to introduce UASs into the airspace system. It also argued that introducing UASs should not “limit access to airspace or require modifications to the existing fleet of aircraft.” Two airlines–United and FedEx Express–sent representatives to the July 30 first plenary meeting of RTCA special committee 228, which leads the development of UAS operational standards.

Despite the current regulatory barriers limiting UAS entry into the airspace system, U.S. government agencies, the military, universities and state and local police departments have won FAA authorization to use numerous unmanned aircraft for specific missions. This year, energy company ConocoPhillips will begin using the Insitu ScanEagle UAS in remote arctic airspace after the FAA granted restricted type certification for the aircraft, for the first time allowing UASs to be used for commercial purposes.

Unfortunately for those working to safely introduce UASs into civil airspace, media distortions persist. For example, photos of the 10,500-pound mtow Predator B accompanied some of the many press accounts of an incident in which an Alitalia Boeing 777 pilot reported seeing a small “drone aircraft”–thought to be a quadcopter–while on approach to New York John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 4. In response to an AIN inquiry, the New York field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that it had “closed” its investigation of the incident without bringing charges.

Nevertheless, the threat of errant UASs interfering with flight operations remains. “How many of you heard about the report that made the news about an unmanned aircraft of some sort seen off the approach to JFK? I get a lot more of those that don’t make the news, and it’s really becoming a concern to me,” Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office, told the ALPA safety forum in July. “If you see something, say something,” he advised airline pilots attending the conference.