Guiding Government Response To Advanced Air Mobility Challenges
Electric aircraft are hot. A 2021 Aerospace Industries Association/Deloitte study projected that advanced air mobility (AAM) will be a $115 billion annual industry worldwide that creates 280,000 jobs by 2035.
AAM will use electric aircraft for commercial operations, but the “new” technologies are attractive to the general aviation community, flight schools and other private aircraft operators. Hundreds of electric trainer aircraft are in production and will be in service in the next three years. Cape Air, a regional airline in New England, may be operating electric aircraft on scheduled routes by 2023.
From a political “green energy” standpoint, the growth of electric aircraft is well-timed. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to coordinate oversight of AAM and identify resources needed to support its growth. ARSA is coordinating with allies to help guide the government’s response. We’re excited about the opportunities but also mindful of unanswered questions and challenges.
Don’t Rush New Regs
Technologies that are new to aviation often lead to calls for new regulations, particularly from those who don’t understand existing ones. The aviation safety rules already cover design, production, operations and maintenance of civil aircraft. The industry’s enviable safety record was built on practices developed considering the less-than-perfect minimum standards of 14 CFR. Rather than add new requirements and restrictions, let’s focus on how to apply existing rules to technologies that are now being used in aviation and avoid inconsistencies, redundancy and complexity.
Investment in America’s airports hasn’t kept pace with the growing aviation sector. The American Society of Civil Engineers projects a $111 billion airport investment shortfall over the next decade. The infrastructure bill being developed may increase federal funding somewhat, but it won’t close the gap. Electrification will require new facilities (for example, special landing sites and terminals to transfer passengers to longer-haul aircraft) and federal investment in charging stations. More aircraft will mean increased pressure on the nation’s air traffic control system. The systems, training and resources must be identified and fulfilled for the segment to realize its potential.
Lawmakers may be persuaded that the environmental benefits of electric propulsion justify the costs of new investments and upgrades. However, there will be reluctance, particularly if resources are shifted from traditional aviation to electric-only facilities and new revenue fails to materialize. Aviation fuel taxes are an important source of funding for airport construction, which means traditional operators and operations will be subsidizing the transition to electric propulsion without receiving any direct benefits. Airports and fixed-base operators that derive revenue from fuel sales will see an inevitable impact on their funding.
The rollout of any new technology requires adjustment of skills. Much of what is now taught to aviation technicians will be transferable; however, the era of generalized knowledge and skill is well behind the pace of change. The use of focused knowledge, skill and application to electric power may be new to aviation but has been long used in other equally important industries. As ARSA leads efforts to address the technician shortage, use of “new” technologies above the Earth and atmosphere are opportunities to generate excitement in the aerospace industry.
Implications for Maintenance
Electric aircraft that are type-certificated under current regulations need to comply with the same regulations that require the creation and use of maintenance information and instructions for continued airworthiness. The agency and operators must abide by those requirements through active enforcement of current regulations and through purchase contracts preventing restrictions on access to maintenance data and parts.
If you’re getting into (or already in) the electric aviation market, contact ARSA to share your experience. If rule challenges or policy roadblocks appear, do what all association members know to do regardless of the buzz: Ask ARSA first!
Christian A. Klein is the managing member of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein, overseeing the firm’s policy advocacy practice; executive vice president of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association; and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Virginia.