Jan 11, 2019

State Policy and Air Taxis

Brent Skorup Senior Research Fellow

Air taxis and electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) will receive significant regulator attention in 2019 as companies test these aircraft and move towards commercialization. I’m fairly bullish on the technology and its potential and I’m pleased to see state lawmakers and mayors, however, seem to be waking up to the massive possibilities of this industry. 

A recent NASA-commissioned study estimates that in the best-case scenario, the U.S. air taxi market would be worth about $500 billion annually, which is nearly the size of the U.S. auto sector. This translates into about 1 million air taxis in the air and 11 million flights per day. Morgan Stanley researchers recently estimated that the global flying car market could be about $1.5 trillion annually by 2040

You can quibble with the numbers, but it’s clear that aircraft companies and governments believe flying cars are no longer science fiction. Uber plans to offer commercial eVTOL flights in 2023, with testing beginning in 2020. Boeing plans testing later this year

Federal and state lawmakers need to start preparing for the industry. In November, I published a paperand a Wall Street Journal op-ed proposing that the FAA demarcate and auction highways in the sky–exclusive aerial corridors–for air taxi flights, as a way to manage airspace congestion and preserve competition.

As I wrote in the Detroit News a few weeks ago, state lawmakers also need to start planning for air taxis. States don’t manage aircraft flights but they do manage zoning, property rights, and other areas where state policy can inhibit or encourage the air taxi industry. I mentioned in the op-ed that there are two things states can do in the near future.

Aerial Navigational Easement

First, a good policy is to grant small aircraft a navigational easement to low-altitude airspace. Trespass lawsuits from landowners could scare away companies and innovators who want to test passenger drone and air taxi flights. 

About half of states created these aerial navigation easements in the 1920s and 1930s so that trespass lawsuits would not interfere with the new aviation industry. Per these state statutes, flights over property are allowed so long as they do not substantially interfere with the homeowner’s use and enjoyment of the land.

Aerial navigation easement laws have a few benefits: They:

  1. Reaffirm the primacy of landowner property interests.
  2. Reinforce state prerogatives to determine property rights.
  3. Encourage the drone and air taxi industry by precluding most trespass lawsuits.
  4. Avoid a fight with federal regulators by leaving air traffic management policy untouched.

This 80-year old policy will see new relevance in the states this year. Last month, in Washington, a landowner sued a drone operator for aerial trespass. Washington, notably, does not provide for an aerial navigational easement in law.

Air Taxi Advisory Committee

Second, governors or legislatures should consider creating advisory committees for the air taxi industry. Air taxis will raise all sorts of novel state and local issues. A few come to mind:

  • Should municipal zoning laws for helipads and air taxi “vertiports” be liberalized?
  • EVTOLs require substantial electrical grid improvements and distributed, powerful charging stations on rooftops and landing sites. Are state regulations standing in the way?
  • Air taxis, like trains and autos, create significant noise and local nuisance laws could essentially preclude all air taxi testing and operation. What decibel levels are appropriate to balance industry and public acceptance? Should that be decided at the state or local level?

State advisory committees were created for another emerging technology sector–autonomous vehicles. Committees are composed of stakeholders, including public safety representatives, consumer groups, industry representatives, and academics. They can create policy recommendations for legislators and participate in hearings as air taxis come closer to commercialization.

For the air taxi industry to reach its potential, there needs to be collaboration between and foresight from state and federal lawmakers. Air taxi technology has moved far ahead of law, regulation, and public perception. Fortunately, I expect state and local officials to start examining their current laws and whether modernization is in order to stimulate this transportation sector.

Photo credit: Ben Smith/Flickr

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