As drone technology improves and commercial space travel begins to draw widespread attention, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to use outdated tools and practices. This has resulted in unnecessary delays and conflicts, and, if it continues, the country may fail to capture the significant economic benefits provided by future technology. The promise of rapid drone delivery, air taxis and civilian space travel requires a commitment to regulatory innovation that recent cuts to the FAA’s funding prevent. It is time to rethink the importance of air governance and prioritize making agencies as cutting-edge as the industries they govern.
Fast and efficient use of airspace is vital for making people’s lives better but is prevented by an out-of-date regulatory system designed for the 1970s. Without effective air traffic control and monitoring, delays have become common, costing an estimated $28 billion in 2018. Meanwhile congestion has brought down travel speeds over the last 45 years. Despite the promises of new and better aircraft, these management problems will continue to compound as more aircraft are introduced, preventing improvements in aviation technology from translating into consumer benefits.
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These traffic problems have only become worse with the development of new types of aircraft. Since 2016, the number of drones registered by the FAA has tripled to 1.3 million, adding to the problem of monitoring and congestion. Drones have the promise of providing great benefits, from improving the productivity of agriculture, cutting down on delivery times and allowing for improved government monitoring, but these benefits cannot be fully realized under the current regime. Innovations such as air taxis or over-land supersonic flight, which are expected to be introduced in the next decade, will only continue to add additional vehicles, requiring more certification and monitoring. If the FAA is unable to modernize now, it will have a much harder time doing so in the future.
The FAA has been hampered in pursuing the kinds of ambitious reform needed to prepare the skies for the future. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the FAA’s updated satellite-based navigation system stalled as a result of insecure funding and governmental conflict. These updates get harder to effectively implement as congestion increases with vehicle registration. Yet, despite the increasing importance of air governance and updating the current technology, the FAA received a $549 million cut in its funding this year.
Without the budget and the trained personnel, important functions of the FAA need to be outsourced, increasing risk. In 2005, the FAA weakened its control over aircraft certification, and Congress gave aircraft companies the authority to designate their own certificators. This process of self-certification has come under increased scrutiny with the recent tragedies that involved two Boeing 737 Max planes, which within five months of each other, crashed off the coast of Indonesia and in Ethiopia, claiming the lives of 346 people. When Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the FAA, was asked about the certification process at a Senate hearing this March, he argued that “it would require roughly 10,000 more staff and another $1.8 billion,” a drastic increase from the division’s current 1,300 staff and $239 million. It’s clear that nothing can change without a significant increase in staff at the FAA to manage the process.
The philosophy that led to quicker, cost-efficient processes being enacted has not only trimmed the number of staff at the FAA, but it has also made it harder for the agency to attract top talent. In the various domains that innovation in airspace governance is needed, recruiting in-house experts becomes a pipe dream without the budget to back it up. This makes reliance on external consultants more and more necessary, which in the long run will cost well beyond what it would cost to retain a full-time staff.
Airspace is getting more crowded and harder to monitor, and new aircraft types and innovative uses for them only add to the problem. Innovation should be a boon, not a burden, but without effective governance, it is difficult to unlock its potential. So, it’s time for the FAA to modernize. Doing so will provide it with the necessary capital and talent it needs to enter the modern age.
Ryan Khurana is executive director at the Institute for Advancing Prosperity and a contributor at Young Voices.