Airline passengers need to play their part in making flights safe and restoring confidence in the air transport system in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to FAA deputy administrator Daniel Elwell. Giving a keynote address as part of the FIA Connect event on Thursday, he called on all travelers to wear face masks at every stage of their journey, including onboard the aircraft and in airports.
“The recovery [of airline service] needs to be a team sport and we can’t have some passengers only wearing masks some of the time or not following social distancing rules,” said Elwell, who is the U.S. representative on the ICAO Council’s Aviation Recovery Taskforce. “All of us have to be vigilant to ensure that all guidance is followed. The U.S. government’s Runway to Recovery policy echoes this and the public are critical to [its implementation].”
Elwell’s comments come as political divisions in the U.S. deepen over the wearing of face masks, with lawmakers divided as to whether to legally enforce their use. For example, Georgia governor Brian Kemp is taking legal action against Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in a bid to stop her from enforcing a requirement to wear masks in public across the city.
Nonetheless, Elwell expressed optimism for an accelerated recovery in airline traffic, pointing to rising passenger numbers on some domestic services. He said that the ICAO taskforce’s recovery road map is practical and consistent with medical standards and depends on a social contract with all stakeholders.
Separately, Elwell said that unmanned aircraft technology now ranks as a matter of the highest priority for FAA, which is increasingly focusing not only on smaller drones but the new larger passenger- and freight-carrying models that the agency categorizes as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM). “Unmanned aircraft are now accepted as a vital sector of aviation and we have to work across borders to ensure that what works in one country will work in another,” he said.
On July 8, the FAA and Switzerland’s Federal Office of Civil Aviation announced that they have agreed to harmonize domestic and international safety standards for unmanned aircraft systems. The two agencies will work together to engage in research and development, exchange ideas, personnel, and information as well as coordinate with other government entities and stakeholders.
Elwell also pointed to the FAA’s new rules for remotely identifying drones, which he said the agency should finalize by the end of 2020. The technology will give unmanned aircraft service providers and the FAA an exact location and identification for every drone covered by the rule.
The FAA has now registered more than 1.6 million drones, of which 1.2 million are small recreational drones. So far, the agency has approved two commercial drone operations: UPS FlightForward, which delivers supplies to an assisted-living facility near Orlando, Florida, and Wing Aviation, which makes retail deliveries in the small community of Christianburg in Virginia.
“We have to make sure that safety propels innovation, and AAM epitomizes the most exciting innovation since the Wright brothers, advancing technologies such as electric power, detect and avoid systems, batteries, and autonomous vehicle technology,” Elwell said.
Elwell cautioned that it won’t be easy to safely implement the fruits of such innovation, stressing that the FAA has committed to taking a "crawl, walk, run" approach. “We’re still crawling with drones and when we graduate to high-density urban operations we will be at the walking phase. We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” he commented. “AAM will follow the same route and to reach the running phases, entrants will have to meet high safety standards that customers have come to expect. We must do it right.”
In his comments to the FIA Connect event, which has replaced the usual Farnborough International Airshow, Elwell said that the FAA continues to consider the UK a valued partner in the wake of the country’s Brexit departure from the European Union. He reported that the U.S. agency recently started a new innovation workgroup with the UK’s Department of Transport and Civil Aviation Authority to introduce innovation more rapidly and safely into aviation.