Will Flight Regulations Keep America on the Ground?
Racecar driver Mario Andretti once said about racing, “If you’re in control, you are not going fast enough.” In the 20th century, government saw its role as control, but today’s realities demand faster decisions that keep pace with our economic and strategic competitors.
Nowhere is this more evident than in aerospace.
We are on the verge of personal aircraft that can take off and land in a large backyard and can be flown autonomously. Drones, which a few years ago were non-existent, are now being developed and used for many applications in our national defense and economic life. Airplanes that can fly at hypersonic speeds and deliver passengers to locations thousands of miles away in only a couple of hours are now being designed. Spacecraft are being built and tested that will take average citizens to earth orbit within a decade. New propulsion systems are being created that will allow aircraft to fly faster or, in some cases, fly using only solar power. Autonomous air freighters are being envisioned that will permit vast movement of tons of cargo without the need for pilots.
And this is just the beginning. When engineers and visionaries look to the sky, they see limitless potential for economic growth, new product development, and technological achievement that will define our future.
Unfortunately, all of these technologies must win the approval of federal regulators. And like all such regulation, our systems for managing aerospace rely on layers of bureaucracy and stakeholders — which are inherently slow and unable to keep up with technological progress. We live in an era of exponential change in technology, and government is far behind the curve — perhaps by decades.
On aerospace, in particular, you can’t say we weren’t warned. All the way back in 2002, the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry foresaw most of the breakthroughs that are rapidly becoming available today. Indeed, the predictions of the Commission hold up remarkably well 14 years later.
Unfortunately, one of the predictions that holds up best is the failure of the old air traffic-control system to enable technological progress, rather than block it. As the Commission put it:
“Our current air transportation system is severely limited in its ability to accommodate America’s growing need for mobility. The basic system architecture, operational rules and certification processes developed several decades ago do not allow today’s technologies to be fully utilized and do not allow needed innovations to be rapidly implemented.”
What was true 14 years ago is still true today. And the situation has grown more dire because emerging technologies are complicating the system’s ability to cope.
The main recommendation made by the Commission was for “rapid deployment of a new, highly automated air traffic management system so robust that it will efficiently, safely, and securely accommodate an evolving variety and growing number of aerospace vehicles and civil and military operations.” Within a few months of the commission’s recommendation, the Federal Aviation Administration, working with NASA, established the NextGen project aimed at creating the new air traffic management system.
A decade later, however, the system is still under development. Despite some progress, it is still years away from full implementation. Meanwhile, technology and demand has already advanced beyond the design and structure of the “new” system.
The recent drone rulemaking from the Federal Aviation Administration is a good example of the costs of this failure to modernize. Much of the potential that drones hold — from delivering packages to reducing traffic congestion on our roads — was foreclosed by the need to fit drones into a system that never envisioned remotely piloted aircraft and autonomous aircraft interacting with other air traffic. However, had the automated air traffic network recommended 14 years ago been deployed in time, it would have been much easier to accommodate drones and their potential would not have been needlessly limited.
The opportunity cost of failing to adapt government to the modern world will only increase with time. Imagine the freedom of mobility offered by a personal aircraft that could take off vertically from your driveway, fly hundreds of miles without your touching the controls, and deliver you safely to a destination of your choice. The technology to make this vision a reality is already in advanced development. But the government-run system for managing this new wave of new technology is not yet in place.
The choice is clear: Either transform government or miss out on economic horizons of almost unimaginable proportions. In aerospace, at least, the sky isn’t the limit — bureaucracy is.
Newt Gingrich is the former Speaker of the House. Former Congressman Bob Walker (R-Pa.) is the Executive Chairman of Wexler/Walker.