During a luncheon speech hosted by the International Aviation Club on May 24, Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, reflected on the challenges posed by "funding issues" within the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 now out of committee and heading towards a full vote by Congress, as well as how "the era of red tape strangling good ideas" needs to end.
"I'll be the first to admit: the debate around the FAA's latest reauthorization didn't go the way I hoped it would," Elwell explained in his prepared remarks. "And while I'm happy to see a long-term bill on the horizon, I worry it still doesn't tackle some of the larger funding and management issues we face."
Yet he stressed the FAA is going "to continue working with industry to prioritize our modernization efforts," which also includes efforts to pare back regulations and encourage more cooperative efforts between government and private industry.
"There's a perception out there that government is where good ideas go to die. Too many bureaucrats. Nothing gets done. And that makes people not want to work with us," Elwell (seen at right) stressed. "[But] the pace of change is too fast. The scope of work is too big. The stakes are too high. We can't afford to be alienating the pioneers … the trailblazers … the groundbreakers. They're the foundation of our industry. And we need them at our table."
To that end, he noted that FAA aims to build a "bigger table," and not just for "traditional" aviation stakeholders but one that will seat the newest "Silicon Valley start-ups" as well.
"We're doing away with outdated processes that don't work in today's aviation system. And if people come into my office and say the reason we do something a certain way is because that's the way it's always been done? You better believe I'm sending them back to the drawing board," Elwell emphasized. "At the very time when American innovators are leading the charge by doing things in a new way, government has to keep up. The FAA has to keep up. If there's a way for us to improve a process, we've got to lead the way."
That includes helping foster growth in the nascent area of commercial drone operations – and he referenced USDOT's Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, launched back on May 9, as an example of what needs to be done.
"We will get a better understanding of how operations over people, beyond visual line of sight ops, and flying drones at night work at the local level. The information we gain from these trials will not only help us expand the regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft nationwide, but it will also help us determine the appropriate level of local control," Elwell said. "It's not enough to just accommodate this growing industry. We need to fully integrate it into our airspace."
Yet there remain "a lot of other questions" FAA needs to answer – "about access, technology, and safety" – that are much more complicated, he pointed out.
"A few weeks ago, I attended the Uber Elevate conference in Los Angeles. During a panel, I was asked if I would ever ride in an autonomous aerial taxi. The question sounded almost surreal. That used to be Jetsons stuff. Now, it is right around the corner – we're talking when, not if," Elwell emphasized. "But, the list of 'how do we?' questions is not to be taken lightly. How do we safely integrate these new users into our already busy airspace? How do we harness technology to modernize the way we manage air traffic? How do we maintain the safety of our system without stifling innovation? The questions aren't new, but just because they're familiar doesn't make answering them any easier."
Except when deciding whether or not to ride in an aerial taxi, he said: "[I gave] the same answer most of you would have given: In a heartbeat. Sign me up."