EASA Progress On eVTOL Regulation Puts Pressure On FAA
Europe is extending its lead in building the regulatory foundations for advanced air mobility (AAM) with the expected release this week by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) of its draft operating and licensing rules for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and their pilots.
The release will increase pressure on the FAA to move ahead promptly with drafting its operating and licensing rules following its recent shift to type certifying all eVTOLs as a special class of powered-lift aircraft. This means existing rules do not apply and new rulemaking is required.
European eVTOL developers are encouraged by the FAA’s shift, as it moves it closer to EASA’s approach to certifying this new category of aircraft and should make FAA validation of EASA certification easier. But while the FAA and EASA may now be more aligned, they are far from harmonized.
At an FAA-EASA safety conference in Washington in mid-June, several officials from the European regulator made pleas for the FAA to move forward on the harmonization of regulations for eVTOL aircraft and their electric propulsion systems now that the decision on type certification is taken.
Industry resisted when EASA first proposed treating eVTOLs as a special class of aircraft because that meant existing operating and licensing rules could not be applied. But EASA went ahead and released the Special Condition for VTOL (SC-VTOL) in July 2019.
The European regulator then quickly followed up with the Special Condition for Electric/Hybrid Propulsion (SC E-19) in July 2021 and is rolling out the means of compliance (MOC) that industry must as a minimum meet to prove their designs meet the certification standards.
The first set of highest-priority MOC was released in May 2021. The second set is expected in June and the third should be out for consultation by the end of 2022. European aviation standards body Eurocae is working with EASA to develop the industry standards related to SC-VTOL.
EASA progress with airworthiness regulations has been fast-paced, but the associated operating and licensing rules are a little different, as they are what the EU terms “hard law” and must be approved by the European Parliament. This requires public consultation, which will begin with release of the draft.
The FAA also has a process it must go through, and its decision to treat eVTOLs as a special class of aircraft has made that process more complex. In a commentary laying out the reasons behind the shift, Vertical Flight Society Executive Director Mike Hirschberg says, “The FAA has now chosen the approach that may generate the greatest amount of work for both the FAA and industry.”
At the FAA-EASA conference, FAA officials reaffirmed their commitment to meeting the timescales of current applicants for eVTOL certification and operation. That requires the FAA to complete a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) by 2024—the same timescale that EASA is already on track to meet.
In conversations with industry, Hirschberg says, the FAA has said it will make an “all-of-agency” effort to publish the SFAR by the summer, followed by a notice of proposed rulemaking this fall. “Now comes the hard part,” he says. “It has often taken the agency a decade to create new rules.
“The FAA must now move at speeds it has seldom ever achieved in the past,” Hirschberg continued. “If it fails, the U.S. will lose its leadership in eVTOL ... much like what happened in the drone industry two decades ago.” The UK has already decided to adopt EASA’s SC-VTOL. Other aviation authorities could follow. Europe’s leadership is already established. It is now down to the FAA to catch up—then harmonize.