On The Radar
Members of Congress and Industry Leaders Voice Concern about FAA's Stewardship of Advanced Air Mobility
Is advanced air mobility a generational opportunity for the U.S. to reboot its leadership in the global aviation industry or a political football? In Washington, D.C., it would seem, it can be both, with the U.S. House aviation subcommittee this week turning its attention to new market entrants, such as drones and eVTOL aircraft, as it considers its position on the pending FAA reauthorization bill.
In opening statements before industry testimony on March 30, several lawmakers accused the Biden Administration of failing to support the emerging advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. Comparing the newcomers to the U.S. aviation system to runners in a marathon race who can’t find the finish line when signposts are removed after 26 miles with just two-10ths of a mile to go, subcommittee chairman Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) said the industry has been thwarted by its own government.
“Our witnesses today represent innovators, users of new technology, and have spent years investing extraordinary amounts of money, time, and effort, and they haven’t actually been able to get to the finish line because we have a government that doesn’t have a process [to regulate new aircraft] and doesn’t reflect any urgency in developing one,” Graves argued. “We don’t have a process that’s capable of delivering, capable of certifying, capable of approving, or capable of integrating new technologies into the airspace.”
While acknowledging that efforts to get the AAM sector on a firm regulatory footing predate the start of the first Biden Administration in January 2020 by at least half a decade, Graves told the hearing that the FAA has failed to provide the ambitious AAM industry with the “predictability in decision making” that it needs to make progress and achieve a viable return on its investment. “After five years, the FAA has certified just one drone,” he continued. “We cannot allow these opportunities to be stifled by red tape and requests for more data. We’re going to cede our leadership [in the AAM sector] to other countries.”
Subcommittee ranking minority member Rick Larsen (D-Washington) echoed some of the Republican chair’s critique, calling for an end to “organizational inefficiencies” at the FAA to create the regulatory bandwidth to certify new aircraft and approve access to the national airspace. He characterized the challenge as an opportunity to create some 280,000 jobs in the new sector, while also opening the door to technology that could significantly cut aviation’s carbon footprint.
The subcommittee of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard from eight industry witnesses representing manufacturers and operators of eVTOL aircraft and uncrewed air systems. While their contributions were less politically tinged than those of the elected officials, they urged Congress to give the FAA the mandate and resources needed to help the AAM sector to fulfill its potential.
Witnesses giving testimony included Adam Woodworth, CEO of drone maker Wing; Roxana Kennedy, chief of police in Chula Vista, California; Stuart Ginn, medical director of WakeMed Health and Hospitals; Catherine Cahill, director of the Alaska Center of UAS Integration; Kyle Clark, CEO of eVTOL aircraft developer Beta Technologies; JoeBen Bevirt, Joby Aviation’s CEO, Chris Bradshaw, CEO of the Bristow Group; and Clint Harper, an AAM expert and community advocate involved in the city of Los Angeles’s plans to be an early adopter of eVTOL air taxi services as part of its public transportation network.
In his written testimony, Clark called for government support to boost private sector efforts by companies including Beta to build the recharging stations and other infrastructure needed to support eVTOL aircraft. He said that the recently passed Advanced Aviation Infrastructure Modernization Act is an important first step to securing this federal backing.
Acknowledging the challenges facing the FAA in its efforts to certify new types of aircraft at a time when it is facing an unprecedented volume of type certification applications, Beta’s founder called for the agency to establish a group of subject-matter experts to strengthen its understanding of electric propulsion systems and other new technologies. Clark said that his company has chosen to begin certification with a conventional takeoff and landing version of its Alia 250 aircraft before trying to complete approval for the eVTOL version in recognition of the complexity of the regulatory process and the pressure it is placing on the FAA.
Having traveled to Washington from the Silicon Valley hub of AAM entrepreneurship, Bevirt essentially urged the House committee to encourage the FAA to keep things simple through “the implementation of straightforward policies companies can utilize on their first day of operations. He maintained that for pilot-on-board eVTOL aircraft like the model being developed by Joby, “this means utilizing the existing system to the fullest extent practical; these aircraft are designed to work with existing airports, existing heliports, and today’s air traffic control system.”
While praising the FAA for the “transparent and collaborative” engagement it has had with Joby since the company applied for type certification back in 2018, Bevirt respectfully called for maximum focus from the agency as eVTOL leaders approach the point where they expect to start mass production and service entry for their vehicles. “As we move from policy development into oversight execution, it is important for FAA certification resources to be available to review test plans, witness testing, and accept final reports,” he stated.
Speaking for the Helicopter Association International as well as Bristow, Bradshaw reiterated concerns that the U.S. air safety agency may not fully grasp or be equipped to deal with the historic opportunity to modernize aviation. “We fear the U.S. regulatory framework lags in comparison to that of other global jurisdictions,” he stated. “Opaque processes and shifting timelines are less than ideal. Additional clarity and expediency from the FAA are required to support U.S. leadership in a competitive global marketplace.”
More specifically, Bradshaw asked for Congress’s support in urging the FAA to adopt ICAO’s Document 10103 recommendations on standards and recommended practices for existing tiltrotor aircraft. In his view, this approach offers a “logical and pragmatic” path for the agency that would avoid the reinvention of the regulatory wheel.