FAA Takes Step Toward eVTOL Operating Rules

Archer is targeting FAA certification of the Midnight eVTOL by the end of 2024, and operations in 2025.

Credit: Archer Aviation

The FAA has taken the first rulemaking step toward enabling commercial operations with electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxis, proposing a rule that would update air carrier definitions to add powered-lift aircraft operations to the regulations.

A Special Federal Aviation Regulation establishing the operating and pilot certification rules required for powered-lift aircraft, the PL-SFAR, is still in the works. “We anticipate publishing this proposed rule in summer 2023 and will finalize it by the time we certify the first powered-lift aircraft,” the FAA said.

Both Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation are targeting FAA certification of their eVTOL air taxis by the end of 2024, although Joby has acknowledged its schedule is tight. Both companies plan to begin commercial air taxi operations in 2025, based on FAA reassurances that PL-SFAR will be finalized by the end of 2024.

The FAA in May changed direction from type certifying winged eVTOLs as fixed-wing aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capability to treating them as a special class of powered-lift aircraft under Part 21.17b regulations.

The change meant there were no rules for operating the aircraft or certifying pilots as the definition powered-lift did not appear in existing regulations, only airplanes or rotorcraft. At the time, the FAA said it planned to release the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for the SFAR by the end of 2022.

Released Nov. 22, the NPRM for the powered-lift definitions rule is an important first step, the FAA said, as it lays the foundation to allow the operation of eVTOL aircraft. The proposed rule incorporates powered-lift into the definitions of five types of U.S. air carrier operation–commuter, domestic, flag and supplemental.

The proposed rule would apply to Part 121 operating requirements for scheduled airlines, Part 125 for large-aircraft charter operations, Part 135 for commuter and on-demand operations and Part 136 for air tours. The rule would also amend Part 91 rules for private aviation to enable powered-lift operations. 

“We have not had an opportunity to review the details of this NPRM but recognize that this is a significant and positive milestone regarding FAA priority and ability to promulgate rulemaking necessary to enable eVTOL powered-lift aircraft entry into service by end of 2024,” said Walt Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), which has coordinated industry input into formulation of the SFAR.

“This [powered-lift definitions] NPRM lays the groundwork for the PL-SFAR, which will address the specific transitional rules for pilot licensing and commercial Part 135 operations of powered-lift aircraft,” he told Aviation Week. “Industry is expecting the PL-SFAR NPRM to be published in first or second quarter in 2023.” The FAA’s own rulemaking process lays out a timeline of about 19 months from release of an NPRM to the issue of a final rule.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published its proposed rules for eVTOL operations and pilot licensing in June and plans to finalize them by the end of 2024. The agency intends to type certify eVTOL aircraft under the Special Condition for VTOL regulations published in July 2019.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.