Aviation is on the cusp of its “third great era” with the emergence of autonomous and unmanned aircraft, according to acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell. This new frontier is coming at a more complex time, with thousands of aircraft crisscrossing the globe and joined by commercial rockets and a million drones, Elwell said in prepared text for his speech before the Aero Club of Washington on Monday. “I’m not sure we appreciate how much of a seismic change it’s going to be—for all of us.”
Warning that the government and industry do not want to be caught flat-footed, he said they must be ready for this next era of aviation; and the system in place today must get better.
Industry must be allowed to be a driver in this. “Innovation fuels aviation, and innovation rarely comes from the federal government,” he said. “Bureaucrats shouldn’t tell innovators what they can’t do. 'See? It’s right there…page 27, section 3, paragraph 1, subpart b – in the footnote.' We’ve had too many of those exchanges in the past.”
The recently passed five-year reauthorization bill—the longest that the FAA has had in more than 35 years—will help change that, he added. “It doesn’t have everything we asked for. No bill ever does. But it’s full of a lot of good things,” he said.
The bill provides a mandate for the FAA to accelerate momentum on unmanned aircraft, paves the way to remote identification standards, and supports long-awaited rules for unmanned operations over people and at night. It also strengthens protections for malicious use, he said.
The law further increases commercial space funding by some 236 percent over the next five years, enabling the creation of an Office of Spaceports. “It even sets us up for the return of supersonic aircraft,” Elwell said. “That’s something most of us thought we’d never see again.” Aircraft advancements will be aided by a reformed certification system, he added.
But while the bill paves the way for the future of aviation, it falls short on funding reform. “This isn’t about more money,” he said. “We collect plenty to keep the system running. What we need is stability and predictability.” He further expressed a desire for spending flexibility.
Operating under the 47th continuing resolution that has been put in place over the past 11 years, Elwell said, “the FAA hasn’t started a fiscal year with a full appropriation since 1997. Think about that for a second. We support two-thirds of the world’s airspace…nearly a billion passengers…and 5 percent of the GDP.”
Elwell also addressed a number of other areas, from regulatory reforms and NextGen initiatives to workforce shortages. In the area of regulatory reform, he said the agency is putting actions in place that should save $65 million annually. At the same time, he added, “We’re busy creating a new and improved regulatory framework for drones and commercial space transportation."
The agency is advancing on airspace initiatives, such as adding performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures in the Northeast Corridor, one of the most congested airspace regions in the U.S. “The Northeast Corridor brings the system to its knees. It’s a petri dish for delays due to weather, construction, and volume,” he said, estimating about a third of all system delays stem from the Northeast Corridor.
PBN is among a number of new technologies rolling out, Elwell added, including “standing up” Data Comm En Route Services in Memphis, Indianapolis, and Kansas City. This should be in place by year-end.
“We’re also gearing up for the Terminal Flight Data Manager, which will improve controllers’ situational awareness. We’ll begin rolling out those capabilities in 2020,” he said.
As for the workforce shortage, Elwell pointed to a nearly 30 percent decrease in pilots holding active airman certificates since the early 1980s and concerns that “our technical workforce is aging at the same time our pipeline is running dry.”
Aviation is competing with Silicon Valley for talent, he said, “and we’re losing…If we don’t turn this around, and I mean soon, we’re going to have empty flight decks. Not unmanned—empty. “
He pointed to the summit the FAA held recently, noting the discussions surrounding getting young people excited about aviation again. “That’s got to be part of the solution,” he said, saying everyone must play a role in spreading “the aviation bug.”
This leads back to innovation. For the FAA’s part, Elwell outlined a vision for creating an “innovation incubator” within the agency “so that good ideas don’t die on the vine.” This could provide freedom to tackle new technologies and tough questions, he said. “We’ll measure success by our ability to disrupt the status quo and break down obstacles—so that new ideas can be transformed into concrete actions without disturbing current operations.”