The day when Urban Air Mobility will transition from dream to reality is fast approaching. A number of eVTOL aircraft are in the final stages of certification. Designs for vertiports are being finalized, and the supporting infrastructure is being constructed. With the work of the dreamers, designers and technologists well underway, it is good to see that the FAA has been working on the aviation regulations necessary to support these operations.
FAA regulations define five kinds of air carrier operations: commuter, domestic, flag, on-demand, and supplemental. The current air carrier definitions, as well as certain regulations that apply to other commercial operations of aircraft, only refer to “airplanes” and “rotorcraft.” In order to broaden the applicability of these regulations, the FAA has released a draft of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that will add “powered-lift” to the definitions in 14 C.F.R. § 110.2. The NPRM would also:
extend the applicability of certain operating rules to powered-lift, such as the rules that apply to large aircraft operations that are not common carrier operations and rules that apply to commercial air tours.
Furthermore, this proposed rule would amend the qualification requirements for personnel in certain management positions for air carriers, to ensure they have appropriate experience in powered-lift operations, and will revise requirements for operations specifications and recordkeeping.
Recognizing that full integration of urban air mobility into the national airspace system is a massive, long-term undertaking, the FAA describes the NPRM as part of a “multi-step process of updating the regulations.” The FAA reiterates that it will be maintaining a “risk-based approach to the integration of new entrant aircraft into the national airspace system.” Under that philosophy, “when operations present a higher level of risk, based on volume of passengers carried and frequency of operation, the FAA will subject such operations to a regulatory framework designed to mitigate those risks.”
The FAA also indicates that its next step in this process will involve proposing a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR):
to establish temporary operating and airman certification regulations for powered-lift. The SFAR will enable industry to begin operating powered-lift while FAA gathers data to develop permanent regulations through a future rulemaking. The FAA plans to use the information gathered in this interim process to update its regulations to address powered lift operations broadly.
This new NPRM has not yet been published in the federal register, and is still subject to change before it is officially released. When it is published, the public will have 60 days to provide comments at www.Regulations.gov.
Government rulemaking almost always lags behind advancements in technology. It appears, however, that the FAA has learned some valuable lessons from the early days of the development of drones, when there were widespread commercial UAS operations with virtually no regulatory framework in place to support it. Perhaps this will be one of the rare exceptions where the regulations are ready at about the same time the technology is.