Apr 20, 2018

FAA Authorization Offers a Chance to Boost Innovation

Brent Skorup Senior Research Fellow

Not long ago, technology research was largely limited to telecommunications and media policy. In recent years, however, technology advancements have started to revolutionize other major industries, including transportation and aviation.

H.R. 4, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, contains provisions recognizing the technological changes brought about by new innovations, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently announced that the bill would go to the House floor next week for a vote.

Mercatus Center tech policy scholars have developed a body of research about how to modernize the Federal Aviation Administration in light of a rapidly changing industry.

Flight Sharing

A few small startups have tried to commercialize flight sharing platforms (“Uber, but for planes”), but the FAA has made the process too burdensome to become a reality.

By expanding the definition of common carriers, the FAA in 2014 classified private pilots using online flight sharing platforms as commercial pilots who required additional levels of licensing and certification.

As Mercatus scholars explained, it’s possible for the FAA to develop a pilot program allowing online flight booking services to try small experiments away from high-traffic airports. The FAA could also adopt the European model and actively work with online flight booking services in order to promote safe practices.

Supersonic Flight

Airplane speeds have stagnated for 40 years, a period that coincides with a 1973 ban on civil supersonic aviation. That ban, Mercatus researchers found, is largely based on dubious claims, and ground civil airspeed innovation to a halt.

Some private startups, like Boom and Aerion, have begun designing potential new civil supersonic aircraft. Innovations in lightweight materials, “quiet supersonic” designs, and other technological improvements may be able to alleviate some of the fears associated with supersonic technology, but until the FAA’s supersonic ban is lifted, these and other companies will have little incentive to continue that work.

A supersonic noise standard would also create policy certainty for innovators while addressing concerns about potential downsides of improving commercial air travel.

Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicle technology is poised to radically alter the aerospace industry, and policymakers should cultivate an atmosphere of permissionless innovation in order to fully realize the potential benefits of drones.

Doing so involves taking steps like integrating drones into the air traffic control system. I’ve argued that we should auction off low-altitude airspace for exclusive use, much like the FCC successfully auctions radio spectrum for commercial use. Airspace auctions would provide clear property rights for drone and “flying taxi” operators in urban areas, ensuring safer, more efficient operations without a massive regulatory framework to regulate thousands of aircraft in low-altitude airspace.

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