Michael Huerta, FAA

Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator.

SIMON LEVY talks to MICHAEL HUERTA, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration on 

Q. Are the current regulations on commercial and recreational UAVs sufficient to facilitate a safe airspace above the United Kingdom? What changes will be enforced in the future? 

I can tell you what we’re doing in the United States. We’re reaching milestones on a regular basis. On June 21, U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx and I announced the first operational rules for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or “drones.” The new rules open pathways towards fully integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace. The rule, which takes effect in late August, offers safety regulations for unmanned aircraft drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting non-hobbyist operations. The rule’s provisions are designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground. Model aircraft operators must continue to satisfy all the criteria specified in U.S. Public Law, including the stipulation they be operated only for hobby or recreational purposes.
These new regulations work to harness new innovations safely, spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives. According to industry estimates, the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

We’re taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety. The new rules are a first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.
We’ve also issued more than 6,000 exemptions to operators for non-hobbyist use of UAS. Recently, we authorized the first commercial drone flight at night. We’ve also started developing rules that will let at least some drones fly safely over people.

We’ve registered more than 480,000 owners of hobby-type drones. Registration helps make sure operators—many whom are interacting with our aviation system for the first time—know the rules and remain accountable to the public for flying their unmanned aircraft responsibly.

We’ve made progress, but we aren’t done. We still must address challenges such as command and control, detect and avoid, aircraft and operator certification, and how radio frequencies will be managed and allotted.

To tackle these challenges in a methodical and orderly manner, we have identified three high-level UAS strategic priorities. The first is to safely allow UAS operations in our national airspace. Second is adaptability; we want to create an environment in which emerging technology can be introduced safely and rapidly. And third, we’re looking to help shape the global standards and practices for unmanned aircraft through international collaboration.

Q. Does UAV tracking need to be integrated into air traffic management to prevent aircraft and UAV incidents?

We still need to evaluate just how UAS will interact with our air traffic control system.

We have mandated installation of ADS-B for manned aircraft, but ADS-B wasn’t built to handle the volume of UAS in the airspace that we envision. Initially, all UAS operations are Visual Line of Sight, so right now there’s no need for ADS-B for unmanned aircraft. 

Long-term, future UAS may be able to self-separate without the need for an outside system. We do envision that ADS-B on manned aircraft will play a critical role in safe separation with unmanned aircraft, because then UAS can detect and avoid manned aircraft.

Q. How is progress going on the FAA register of UAV users and what measures are being taken to control irresponsible users?

So far, more than 480,000 hobbyist owners have registered. We’ve also registered more than 10,000 individual UAS used for other than a hobby or recreation, in addition to any commercial UAS registered in the FAA’s legacy aircraft registration system. 

There is no single solution to the question of how we make sure people fly the way they should. The safe integration of unmanned aircraft is multi-faceted, and our approach must be as nimble as the technology itself. Requiring owners to register their drones is one tool we’re using to give owners a sense of accountability for using the airspace safely. We also have several educational initiatives, such as the “Know Before You Fly” website with industry, and our own “B4UFLY” downloadable smartphone app. While education is our focus, people who operate in a reckless manner could face enforcement actions, including federal fines.  

Q. What stage has been reached on plans to incorporate UAVs into US civil airspace?

We’re approaching UAS integration as an incremental process. We’re first focusing on less complex operations, and we are then moving to tackle more complex operations. We have already begun the next steps with rulemaking for flights over people and for operations beyond the scope of our final small UAS rule. 

It’s important to remember we will never be “done” with UAS integration - in fact, we’re still integrating manned aircraft into the national airspace. We will continue to improve the regulatory framework to permit increasingly complex operational concepts – extended and beyond visual line-of-sight, integration into controlled and uncontrolled airspace and other areas.

We also recently announced formation of a Drone Advisory Committee to provide an open venue for FAA and key decision makers to support the safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system. Members of the Committee will work in partnership with the FAA to identify and propose actions to the FAA on how best to facilitate resolution of issues affecting the efficiency and safety of integrating UAS into the NAS. The members will include a cross-section of UAS stakeholders that represent the wide variety of UAS interests - including industry, government, research and academia, retail and technology.

Q. When do you see regular BVLOS operations by UAVs in controlled airspace? What do you think will be the biggest challenge to overcome here?

We’re in the research phase now, gathering data to help us craft a solid rule for BVLOS operations. 

Command and control is a significant area we have to address for safe BVLOS flights. BNSF Railway is currently exploring command-and-control challenges related to using UAS to inspect rail system infrastructure as part of our Pathfinder initiative. 

Whatever rules we eventually craft for BVLOS operations, our primary consideration will be the safety of other aircraft and people and property on the ground. 

Q. What is the current progress with NextGen ATC improvements?

We’ve made tremendous progress with NextGen. System-wide, we’ve measured $1.6 billion in benefits to airlines and the traveling public from NextGen capabilities already in place. Over the next 15 years, we estimate that these changes alone will produce an additional $11.4 billion in benefits.

 To be more specific, we’ve implemented scores of new satellite-based air traffic procedures in various major aviation hubs – called Metroplexes – around the country. These include Houston, North Texas, Washington, D.C. and Northern California. We’ll be doing the same in Southern California, Central and South Florida, Atlanta and Charlotte. Through our Metroplex initiative, new satellite procedures are being woven into some of the most complex airspace in the nation. These initiatives improve the way aircraft navigate complex airspace, make flight routes and airport access more efficient, reduce fuel burn and improve on-time performance.   
We’ve completed the installation of En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, at our 20 en route control centers in the continental United States, which cover more than 3.2 million square miles. ERAM is a state-of-the art automation system we use to control more than 30 million flights annually. With ERAM, air traffic facilities now can track 1,900 aircraft at a time, instead of the previous 1,100. Airspace transitions are automatic, even when planes divert from their planned course. This improves efficiency during bad weather and congestion.  ERAM also gives controllers updated information every second, compared to radar updates of 7-12 seconds. 
Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, is the core technology that moves us from a radar-based air traffic system to a satellite-based system. The infrastructure for ADS-B is complete. ADS-B-equipped aircraft are now being tracked, with controllers providing radar-like separation to aircraft that previously operated in areas where no radar is available, such as the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of Alaska.

Data Comm gives controllers and pilots the ability to transmit flight plans and other essential messages with the touch of a button instead of multiple verbal communications. This switch from voice to text doesn’t just speed things up; it also increases safety, reducing the chance of a read-back error while relaying information. It allows controllers to send text instructions to several aircraft at once – a much more accurate and efficient process than having numerous conversations. In 2016, we’re aiming to have Data Comm in more than 50 air traffic control towers – three years ahead of schedule. We also are planning to implement it in air traffic control facilities that manage high altitude traffic beginning in 2019.

These are just a few of the examples of NextGen technologies and procedures that are enabling aircraft to fly more directly and efficiently from Point A to Point B, saving time and fuel burn, and reducing aviation’s impact on the environment. 

Q. Delays are notorious at certain US hub airports. Are any measures being taken to tackle this problem?

Reducing delays is one of the main goals of NextGen, as explained in detail above. Virtually all of the major technologies and procedures that have been rolled out and will be rolled out are designed to safely ease congestion and delays in our nation’s airspace system. 

As just one example of measurable improvements from NextGen, we increased capacity by 5 percent at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and by 17 percent at Memphis International Airport by safely reducing wake separation standards between aircraft. This was done to improve the efficiency of airport operations and reduce delays. Delta Air Lines chief executive officer Richard Anderson said the new technology – called Wake Recategorization, or Wake Recat – is nearly equivalent to building a new runway at the Atlanta airport. FedEx said they’ve saved enough money to fly their operations free for nine days.

Q. How far has SESAR progressed in reaching its objectives set out in 2007? Where do you see SESAR developing in the immediate future?

We’ve been working closely with the European Union and SESAR to ensure that passengers continue to enjoy seamless air traffic services while flying between the U.S. and Europe, and are pleased with the progress made by SESAR. 

A Memorandum of Cooperation with the European Union, originally signed in March 2011, was recently expanded to enhance collaboration on the deployment and implementation of NextGen activities. It would also maintain ongoing research on the interoperability of avionics, communication protocols and procedures, as well as operational methods under NextGen and SESAR.

Q. Does the FAA have any initiatives relating to replacements for fossil fuels?

The FAA is leading efforts to test, develop and introduce alternative jet fuels.

We recently played an integral role in the development, testing and approval of a new alternative, environmentally-friendly, bio-based jet fuel, bringing the total number of these approved products for use in air travel to five. This new fuel will make air travel more sustainable environmentally and increase our national energy resources. In contrast to traditional petroleum-based fuels, these new alternative fuels can reduce air quality emissions and are renewable.

In collaboration with the aviation industry, the FAA approves new renewable jet fuel pathways through ASTM International. The FAA’s Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) partnership with industry was crucial in completing the necessary steps to support ASTM international's revised standard for this new fuel, known as Alcohol to Jet Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (ATJ-SPK). It is created from an alcohol called isobutanol that is derived from renewable feed stocks such as sugar, corn or forest wastes.

Other previously approved fuels the FAA has fostered development of include:

Synthesized Iso-parafins (SIP), which convert sugars into jet fuel;
Hydro-processed Esters and Fatty Acids Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (HEFA-SPK), which use fats, oils and greases;
Fischer-Tropsch Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (FT-SPK); and Fischer-Tropsch Synthetic Kerosene with Aromatics (FT-SKA).

Both FT-SPK and FT-SKA fuels use various sources of renewable biomass, such as municipal solid waste, agricultural wastes and forest wastes, wood and energy crops. These fuels can also be made from fossil resources such as coal and natural gas.

These new fuels will help the aviation industry meet its climate change goal of carbon neutral growth.  For example, operation with ATJ-SPK could reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a life-cycle basis by up to 85 percent. 

As more alternative jet fuels are developed, these products have the potential to be increasingly viable for cost-competitive production and broad use. Another cost-saving goal and FAA focus area is a “drop-in” requirement for alternative fuels. That means the fuels can be used directly in existing aircraft without any modification to engines or other equipment while maintaining an equivalent level of safety and performance to petroleum jet fuels.  

In addition to CLEEN, the FAA is working with industry, other government agencies and academia through the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) and the agency’s Aviation Sustainability Center (ASCENT), a consortium of research universities.

Q. The FAA is now responsible for Commercial Space Transportation including private space missions beyond LEO to the moon. Can you explain your approach in this new area?

The FAA has been overseeing, regulating and licensing U.S. private companies and individuals involved in commercial space transportation since 1989. We’ve safely licensed more than 240 launches and re-entries over the past 30 years. We’ve also licensed 10 primarily private rocket launch sites, often referred to as “space ports.”

The FAA does not license, regulate or oversee in-space, orbital, or out-of-orbit activities, such as flights to the Moon.

The FAA wants to ensure the safety of the public and property while still fostering innovation. Therefore, the FAA requires a license for any launch or reentry, or the operation of any launch or reentry site, by U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, or by any individual or entity within the United States.

The FAA still recognizes that strictly government missions are required, and an FAA license is not required for space activities the government carries out for the government, such as most NASA or Department of Defense launches.

To encourage growth, it is important for the FAA to be responsive to this emerging industry’s needs.  For example, once the FAA determines a license application package is complete, the FAA has 180 days to complete an evaluation and issue or deny a license.

The FAA licensing evaluation generally includes: ensuring the safety of public and property not involved in the launch; the activity’s environmental impact; national security or foreign policy concerns; and insurance requirements for the launch operator.

To help facilitate the eventual licensing process and promote innovation, the FAA can also issue experimental permits for the launch or reentry of reusable suborbital rockets. Experimental permits are issued for research and development; demonstrating compliance with requirements leading to licensing; or crew training prior to obtaining a license. However, no one may operate a reusable suborbital rocket under such a permit for the purpose of carrying any property or human being for compensation or hire.

FAA safety inspectors monitor all FAA-licensed activities, including launches from foreign countries and international waters.  The FAA has the authority to suspend or revoke any license or issue fines when a commercial space operator is not in compliance with statutory or regulatory requirements.

In the emerging field of commercial human space flight, the FAA requires commercial spaceflight crew and participants to engage in spaceflight operations through a process known as “informed consent.” Informed consent regulations require crew and spaceflight participants to be informed, in writing, of mission hazards and risks, vehicle safety record, and the overall safety record of all launch and reentry vehicles. Prior to flight, crew and spaceflight participants must provide their written consent to participate. 

Q. Do you think the US is on the cusp of an airline pilot shortage? What steps are being taken to address this?

The FAA’s regulations make sure that U.S. airline pilots are well qualified and trained. We know that fewer people are getting into the pilot career field, and the FAA has issued fewer commercial and flight instructor certificates over the last 10 years. When we asked industry to comment on pilot supply issues in the proposed rule for pilot certification and qualification, some people shared their concerns about a potential pilot shortage. Others told us industry has thousands of pilots on furlough who would return if the salaries improved.  
In 2010, the United States Congress mandated that commercial pilots have an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate by August 2013. We took advantage of a provision to offer a restricted ATP, which allows certain pilots to get an ATP with fewer than 1,500 hours considering their military or relevant academic experience. 

Q. Do you expect the US will adopt the MPL licence at some point?

The pilot qualification and training rules are making a significant impact on the quality and performance of U.S. pilots. The FAA has been involved in discussions with ICAO and the international community, sharing information and experiences about MPL, for several years. Development of a structured pathway that trains someone from the beginning to be an airline pilot, like MPL, would not only require a significant change in the training and hiring practices of U.S. air carriers, but would also require a significant regulatory change. In order to ensure we continue to have the most qualified airline pilots in the world we will always look at ways to improve our training and qualification standards. Although we are not opposed to the exploration of alternative training pathways, we do not have a rulemaking plan at this time.

Q. What would your message to your European and international counterparts be on collaboration. Are there any areas where you think we could be doing more together? 

Aviation is truly an international industry. Passengers expect the same level of safety and service no matter where they’re traveling. It’s our job – as regulators, as airlines, as manufacturers and suppliers –to not only deliver on these expectations, but exceed them. We must continue to work together and ensure the safety of our global aviation system transcends any physical borders.

We work with our international counterparts to ensure our efforts support a safe, harmonized global aviation system. By working together, we can create a better safety culture that can assess risk through collaboration, share information about technology challenges such as unmanned aircraft, and support innovation that changes the way we certify parts and aircraft to recognize the increasingly interconnected and global marketplace.

We’re making tremendous strides through global collaboration. Through international partnerships, we are working towards and promoting global harmonization of air traffic management systems, including more common standards, technologies and information exchange platforms. We have several efforts underway through our NextGen SESAR collaboration in Europe as well as with our work in Asia and the Caribbean. We are making inroads in Africa as well through the Safe Skies for Africa program. We recognize that one size doesn’t fit all for our global aviation community. Using the ICAO Aviation System Block Upgrades (ASBU) model, we need to work with states, regions and ICAO to help everyone understand the ASBUs, and how they can be used as incremental steps to modernize based on the individual needs of the air navigation service provider or the region. We need to encourage regional ATM information sharing networks through our membership in international trade organizations such as the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) and through ICAO regional planning groups. A good example is the common regional Virtual Private Network, an ICAO initiative to enhance information exchange in the Asia-Pacific region. We need to ensure these regional solutions are building blocks to the global ATM network. As the FAA pursues key innovations as part of our safety and modernization efforts, we look forward to sharing information with our international partners. We will work together in order to make global aviation safer, greener, and more seamless and efficient.

Q. In light of recent air accidents, how do we implement effective airport and in flight security? Are the new threats to air security less physical and more technology based? Is the ‘system hacker’ the new prominent threat to air security? What can be done to counter this threat? What initiatives are being taken to streamline security measures at US airports?

 The FAA is committed to strengthening its capabilities to defend against new and evolving cybersecurity threats. The FAA and industry have worked on cybersecurity threats to commercial airplanes over the past 20 years. The FAA addresses cybersecurity on different types of aircraft through special conditions. There have been no U.S. commercial accidents or incidents that resulted from intrusion into onboard aircraft systems from a wireless network or an airplane’s in-flight entertainment system. The FAA’s Chief Information Office works closely with the Office of Aviation Safety on certification standards for non-FAA information systems operating within the U.S. National Airspace System. The agency’s Cybersecurity Steering Committee, which includes safety experts, leads the FAA’s efforts to develop a comprehensive cyber-risk management strategy, and to identify and correct both existing and evolving vulnerabilities in all Internet protocol-based systems. The FAA has begun an initiative to improve the cybersecurity defenses of the National Airspace System, as well as other mission critical systems.

Simon Levy
19 July 2016