With the debut of its helicopter ridesharing service Uber Copter in New York City, Uber and its competitors Blade and Airbus have come out in favor of stricter regulations to enhance safety in air taxi operations.
Specifically, all three companies have said they would support a regulatory requirement for safety management systems (SMS) in operations governed under Federal Aviation Regulations part 135 — the rules that apply to on-demand air taxi operations like Uber Copter.
“Voluntary implementation is a good beginning, but having an SMS implementation that is acceptable to the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and surveilled by them I think would certainly improve the actual implementation and the benefits that are derived from SMS,” Uber head of aviation safety John Illson told eVTOL.com.
Safety management systems are sets of formal, documented processes for identifying hazards and managing risks. They are required for commercial airlines — which operate under a different set of Federal Aviation Regulations, part 121 — and while they are not cure-alls, they have been credited with helping to achieve the exceptional safety record in that sector. Most proponents of urban air mobility, including Uber, contend that aerial ridesharing will need to achieve similar levels of safety in order to scale up successfully.
With Uber Copter, Uber is working with the longstanding helicopter charter operator HeliFlite to offer flights between Lower Manhattan and Kennedy International Airport. Uber is launching its limited aerial ridesharing service with helicopters in order to prove out the underlying software and customer experience model, but eventually plans to utilize eVTOL air taxis on a much larger scale.
Although the vehicles will be different, Uber expects that these eVTOL operations will also take place under part 135 or its international equivalents — regulations that have the flexibility to accommodate on-demand operations, as opposed to the rigidly scheduled flights of the airlines. While part 135 has more stringent safety requirements than part 91 — the rules that governed the flight of the private helicopter that crashed on a Manhattan skyscraper on June 10 — those requirements still fall well short of what is demanded by part 121.
This discrepancy is reflected in the spotty safety record of part 135 operations. According to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) database, in the first half of this year alone, there were at least 20 accidents involving part 135 aircraft in the U.S., killing 19 people — more than were killed in all of 2018. Even then, the NTSB was sufficiently concerned by the part 135 safety record that it added “Improve the safety of part 135 aircraft flight operations” to its 2019 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.
In announcing its Most Wanted List in February, the NTSB explained, “Regardless of the purpose of the flight or the type of aircraft, all flights should be safe — right now they may not be. That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t require air medical service, air taxi, charter, or on-demand flights to meet the same safety requirements as commercial airlines.”
The NTSB specifically highlighted SMS and flight data monitoring (FDM) as safety programs that are not required of part 135 operators, but which “enable operators to take a strategic approach to safety management, requiring that safety-focused policies, practices, and procedures be implemented to keep aircrews and passengers safe.”
Voluntary participation not enough
The FAA has been exploring the feasibility of an SMS requirement for part 135 operators for at least a decade. An FAA spokesperson told eVTOL.com that “a requirement for an SMS program for part 135 operators would have to be accomplished through regulatory action,” but did not respond directly when asked whether the FAA is actively considering such regulatory action. Instead, the spokesperson noted, “While SMS is not currently required of part 135 operators, the FAA has a formal SMS voluntary program in which part 135 operators may participate.”
Uber’s Illson pointed out that the sheer number and diversity of part 135 operators in the U.S. poses a significant challenge to implementing and enforcing an SMS requirement. Because many part 135 operations differ in fundamental ways from commercial airline operations, an SMS requirement would also need to accommodate the unique concerns of those operators, he said.
“We want to be sure that any regulatory requirements are consistent with what 135 needs — not just copying and pasting the 121 requirements,” Illson emphasized, “but being sure that they are realistic and will see SMS implementation that actually benefits the 135 community and is implemented in a very meaningful way.”
But if the details still need to be worked out, Uber nevertheless views some type of evolution in operational safety regulations as necessary for the success for large-scale aeromobility. According to Stan Swaintek, Uber’s director of operations, aviation, “For urban air mobility and aerial ridesharing to be delivered safely, I think the scale and complexity of the type of operation we are proposing necessitates more than voluntary participation in things like safety management systems.”
Rob Wiesenthal, the CEO of Blade — which has been offering helicopter ridesharing in the New York City area since 2014 — affirmed that his company would also support a part 135 regulatory requirement for SMS, and emphasized that aerial ridesharing brings with it a host of special safety concerns.
“Flying six to eight individuals who are not traveling together is a very different process than two or three passengers flying as one charter,” he told eVTOL.com. “It requires dedicated and trained personnel for check-in, security, baggage assessment, and passenger ‘stacking’ — specific seats for specific passengers — to address weight distribution and maximize passenger comfort.”
Another helicopter ridesharing company is Voom, which is currently offering flights in São Paulo, Brazil, and Mexico City, Mexico, and plans to expand to the U.S. this fall. While Voom did not specifically comment on a part 135 regulatory requirement for SMS, its parent company Airbus was highly supportive.
“Having a performant aviation [SMS] in place plays an important role in improving flight safety and decreasing accidents,” an Airbus spokesperson stated. “While there is no harmonized approach to SMS adoption in the global aviation industry today — with some regulatory authorities promoting a voluntary approach, and others making it mandatory — we are an ardent proponent of the SMS, and we accompany our customers in setting these up wherever possible. Airbus would therefore welcome and support a regulatory requirement for SMS use by part 135 operators.”
A long-term vision
The NTSB has recommended that the FAA require all part 135 operators to install flight data recording devices capable of supporting an FDM program, and to implement SMS. However, it has also told operators that they shouldn’t wait to adopt these safety-enhancing measures. With aerial ridesharing quickly gaining in popularity, it will be largely up to industry to hold itself to higher standards than part 135 currently dictates.
According to Illson and Swaintek, that is a challenge Uber has embraced. Illson is a former airline captain who spent 26 years with U.S. Airways before moving on to a variety of safety roles — with the International Air Transport Association, MITRE, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and others — and he has been drawing on his experience in the part 121 world to help shape the culture of Uber’s urban air mobility division, Elevate.
For example, he told eVTOL.com in late June, “We’re working very hard [on] implementing a safety reporting system here at Elevate.” (Safety reporting is an essential element of SMS.) “That was one of the first things that the entire Elevate team did when I joined 10 weeks ago, and also developing a very effective culture so that everybody on the team feels comfortable reporting those safety issues and giving us the information we need to improve the system.”
Swaintek said that Uber has also been working closely with HeliFlite to integrate with and enhance the operator’s existing safety systems and processes. “We are working I think closer with HeliFlite than most brokers or partners have in the past, because we have a vested interest in the end-to-end customer experience,” he said. “As we’ve built the Uber Copter team in New York, we have maintained daily touchpoints with all levels of their organization, from safety to operations to dispatching to their pilots.”
In all sectors of aviation, safety exists in tension with financial pressures. Uber has said that its helicopter flights between Manhattan and Kennedy International Airport will cost around $200 per person. It remains to be seen whether Uber Copter will make money — particularly because Uber has made the expensive decision to use twin-engine helicopters with two pilots for enhanced safety.
But Uber is deliberately playing the long game. According to a prospectus it filed earlier this year in advance of its initial public offering, Uber spent $457 million in 2018 on research and development for technology programs including Uber Elevate, and “expects to increase such investments in the future.” In this context, it is less important for Uber Copter to turn a profit than to build public confidence in aerial ridesharing.
“Ultimately the reason we’re doing Uber Copter is not because we believe there is a scalable and sustainable future in the helicopter transportation market sector,” Swaintek said. “We’re using this as a means to advance our operating capabilities and digital products.”
Swaintek said he believes Uber Copter will be a “sustainable business,” although he acknowledged that the economics would be easier with a single-pilot, single-engine-helicopter model. Nevertheless, he said, “we are confident that this is the right way to ultimately accomplish our leading objectives, which are developing those operating capabilities, learning about our customers’ experience along that multi-modal journey, and developing the digital products and the safety standards that are going to be required in order for this to truly be a scalable operation with eVTOLs in the future.”