I am a transportation technology researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. As part of its mission, Mercatus Center scholars conduct independent analyses to assess agency rulemakings and proposals from the perspective of consumers and the public. Among other appointments, I served on the Texas Urban Air Mobility Advisory Committee.
Attached is a law review article I wrote, “Auctioning Airspace." It is responsive to several USDOT queries about advanced air mobility (AAM) public policy and strategies. For instance, the USDOT requested information about “existing barriers to success of AAM implementation.”
Fair and competitive airspace access, particularly for urban air mobility (UAM), is an understudied area. The FAA wisely plans to designate air corridors for UAM operations in the future. However, absent thoughtful policy, the designation of UAM and AAM corridors will create damaging “route-squatting” and anticompetitive incentives for AAM companies. As NASA noted in recent research, “It is relatively straightforward to achieve equitable and efficient access to airspace at low levels of demand, but as demand increases sharing resources becomes more difficult and subject to a number of complicated tradeoffs.” NASA, therefore, is studying mechanisms to ensure “equitable and efficient use of” UAM corridors, including “airspace markets,” to protect against “strategic (gaming) behavior” by operators.
The attached study, “Auctioning Airspace,” explains why airspace markets are needed and how airspace markets—much like federal government-created radio spectrum markets—protect competition and allow innovation in AAM technology and business models. Aeronautics researchers at MIT recently explored the airspace markets concept and similarly concluded that such “[a]uctions offer an effective method of eliciting information useful for flight prioritization, while maintaining the privacy of aircraft operators and efficiently allocating resources.”
The USDOT requested “[i]nformation about specific statutes, federal regulations, or other legal authorities that could be created or updated to support AAM in the United States and maintain the regulatory agility necessary to safely enable this new form of transportation.”5 The paper notes, while new legislation would be helpful to signal the change in national policy, the FAA may not require new legislation to create airspace markets:
The FAA has broad statutory authority to “assign . . . the use of the navigable airspace under such terms, conditions, and limitations as [it] may deem necessary in order to insure the safety of aircraft and the efficient utilization of such airspace.” Further, the FAA has authority to lease any interest in property, including airspace, for “adequate compensation,” and the Secretary of Transportation is instructed by statute to “plac[e] maximum reliance on competitive market forces.”
The attached law review article has other information and background responsive to the USDOT queries about a national AAM strategy, particularly in urging a focus on getting airspace policy right. Thank you for the opportunity to comment in this proceeding. Should USDOT staff have further questions about AAM public policy, I am happy to assist.
Brent Skorup, Auctioning Airspace, 21 N.C. J.L. & TECH. 79 (2019).