Bills introduced into both houses of the U.S. Congress would instruct the federal government to convene an interagency working group to study advanced air mobility (AAM) and coordinate a national strategy in support of new aviation technologies.
The legislation was introduced in the House by Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Garret Graves (R-La.) and in the Senate by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Both bills, in similar language, call for the U.S. Department of Transportation to form a working group with members of relevant government agencies, segments of industry, and other parties to examine the steps necessary to realize the benefits of AAM and make recommendations for federal actions.
“The Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act goes well beyond the good work the FAA is doing to certify and build the operational regulatory framework to introduce electric aircraft into the national airspace system,” said Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). “This legislation would facilitate the Department of Transportation’s coordination of all federal departments and agencies with industry and other stakeholders to help realize the enormous potential and broad societal benefits of this rapidly developing and transformative aviation sector.”
In addition to clarifying the roles and responsibilities of various government agencies, the working group will review anticipated benefits of AAM; factors that may limit its potential, including community acceptance; necessary infrastructure for initial and expanded operations; and safety requirements involved with “future air traffic management concepts which may be considered as part of the evolution of AAM to higher levels of traffic density,” according to the House version of the bill. The Senate version can be found here.
A study released in January by Deloitte and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) — echoing a recommendation included a year earlier in a study by the National Academies — called for a national strategy and whole-of-government approach to AAM, which Deloitte and AIA predict will represent a $115 billion market in the U.S. by 2035.
Numerous government agencies are already engaged in preparation for the introduction of AAM. The U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program has awarded record-breaking numbers of technology development grants to industry and academia while also leveraging its considerable resources and military airworthiness process to support civil certification efforts. The Air Force is also working with NASA to tackle supply chain challenges associated with AAM.
NASA’s AAM National Campaign has begun initial testing of expected urban air mobility approach procedures using a Bell OH-58C Kiowa helicopter with plans to incorporate Joby Aviation’s eVTOL prototype this spring. Flight characteristics data from these tests will help the Federal Aviation Administration certify new aircraft and reach decisions around key issues like safe energy reserve requirements.
While the above agencies are “actually coordinating very well,” according to Robin Lineberger, Deloitte’s outgoing lead for aerospace and defense, there are numerous areas where more federal leadership is needed to pave the way for AAM operations. One such area may be defining technology requirements and securing financing to build the infrastructure, including communications networks, necessary for the air traffic management system that will enable denser aerial operations in urban areas.
With Democrats narrowly in control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House — and the Biden administration keen on funding infrastructure development to stimulate the economy — most lobbyists and Washington insiders expect 2021 to be a critical year for federal spending.
However, the degree to which electric aviation and eVTOLs will be a part of larger plans to improve transportation and meet climate goals is unclear; the introduction of electric vehicles and charging stations, new public transit systems and expanded rail networks are widely viewed as more important.
The larger question of where financing for AAM will come from — whether the industry will require government funding, and in which areas — remains open as well. Some industry leaders, such as Nexa Capital Advisors’ Michael Dyment, argue that the expected returns on infrastructure projects are more than enough to secure the necessary investment from private sources. But there are clearly areas where government support would encourage adoption of electric aviation, such as for the installation of charging stations at existing airports and heliports or the expansion of tax benefits for electric vehicles to the air.
“Senator Moran and Sinema’s legislation takes a forward-thinking approach to intergovernmental coordination and industry collaboration on AAM policymaking,” said Jim Viola, president and CEO of Helicopter Association International (HAI). “Establishing an AAM working group with a representative from each of the necessary federal agencies will not only facilitate a more-effective and comprehensive regulatory framework, but it will also help the AAM industry get off the ground sooner.”