Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting the launch of the U.S.’s first air taxi routes, which have been set back by regulatory red tape. But according to a U.S. Department of Transportation audit of the FAA, they may need to wait even longer than expected.
The audit, published last week, details years of internal strife, mismanagement, and fragmented communication it claims have unnecessarily delayed the certification and regulation of advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft, such as air taxis. The DOT issued four recommendations to the FAA—with which it concurred—but said the agency “will likely continue to face challenges.”
The FAA, in response, reiterated its commitment to safety: “Our mission is to create a space for this industry where innovation incorporates the high level of safety that defines modern aviation,” the agency told FLYING in an email.
“We are making steady and significant progress in certifying aircraft and pilots and the planning for integrating these aircraft into the airspace. We’ll be ready for air taxi operators when they’re ready to fly safely.”
In August 2020, ranking members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation, noticing the slow pace of AAM certification and regulation, requested the DOT investigate FAA procedures.
Then, in March 2022, the DOT launched an audit “to determine FAA’s progress in establishing the basis for certification of AAM aircraft, including ensuring the safety of novel features [such as electric engines] and providing guidance to applicants.”
Over the following 14 months, the agency reviewed federal regulations, rulemaking documents, and a host of other FAA documentation. It also conducted interviews with FAA representatives, executives, and personnel, as well as AAM certification applicants and aviation industry groups.
Concluded in May, the audit paints the picture of an agency in dysfunction, bogged down by disagreement and lethargic decision-making that continues to hamper progress on AAM. It identified three major deficiencies in the FAA’s approach:
- Undue time spent determining the proper AAM certification pathway
- Steep regulatory challenges in establishing the special-class powered-lift certification category for eVTOL
- Lack of clarity around the role of the Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation
Below, we dive into the report’s key findings—and the DOT’s recommendations—in detail:
The Powered-Lift Predicament
As the audit notes, the conditions that created the FAA’s current regulatory Rubik’s cube can be traced back more than a quarter of a century.
In 1997, the agency defined an aircraft category called “powered-lift,” which it described as “aircraft capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing, and low speed flight that depends principally on engines during those phases of flight, and on wings during horizontal flight.”
Sound familiar? This definition of powered-lift closely describes the way early eVTOL aircraft are expected to fly, but not quite. And though the FAA did amend pilot certification regulations to establish a powered-lift category rating, it never developed powered-lift airworthiness standards or operating rules.
Therein lies the problem. According to the audit, some within the FAA believed air taxis fit the 1997 definition well enough to be certified as special-class powered-lift aircraft under section 21.17(b). Others, worried by the lack of regulation around powered-lift, preferred to certify them under section 21.17(a) as normal category airplanes with special conditions.
The latter group would get its way. In 2017, the FAA began revising airworthiness standards for normal category airplanes, which some personnel told auditors were designed to introduce fixed-wing AAM aircraft into that category. However, the rule specified that some AAM aircraft resembling rotorcraft—Alakai’s AH2-1 or Moog’s SureFly 250, for example—would be certified under the special category of section 21.17(b).
The lack of a universal path to certification created a divide within the FAA, the DOT claims. According to the audit, there were sizable factions supporting either sections 21.17(a) or 21.17(b).
For example, the FAA in 2017 began the process of authorizing powered-lift aircraft for commercial operations under Parts 110 and 119. But between 2018 and 2022, management continued to push for AAM certification in the airplane category. They abandoned efforts to enable commercial powered-lift operations in 2021, instead attempting to remove the category from the books altogether.
The auditors claim, according to interviews, this move created internal conflict and low morale, inhibiting AAM rulemaking. Per a 2021 survey of the Flight Standards Service’s Office of Aviation Safety Standards, respondents claimed FAA top brass injected “personal bias” into AAM decision-making. Some were afraid to bring up potential issues due to “intimidation by higher management or fear of a decision being preordained,” the report concluded.
In response to the audit, the FAA pushed back on the DOT’s assessment: “Through [internal discussions], the FAA decided on a path that would ensure a viable operational strategy for these projects. The wide-ranging discussions did not adversely affect the applicants’ programs and will better ensure a successful integration of their aircraft into the National Airspace System.”
However, despite external communication that AAM aircraft would be certified as airplanes, the FAA last year reversed course—a move several applicants claim caught them off guard.
Reversing Course and the Challenge Ahead
Just one year after the FAA decided to scrap the powered-lift category, the agency did a complete 180-degree turnaround. Following a few senior personnel changes, it announced in May 2022 that AAM aircraft would now be certified as special-class powered-lift aircraft under section 21.17(b).
Finally, after four years, it had settled on a standard. But the decision took AAM applicants, who had been planning certification within the normal airplane category, by surprise—and it could cause the FAA headaches down the line.
The audit criticized the FAA’s external communication (or lack thereof) of its AAM certification path. Interviews with applicants revealed concerns about meeting certification timelines, and some worried a delayed U.S. launch could muck up their planned launches in other markets.
The change in certification also means the FAA must reissue certification bases to applicants. So far, it’s provided new guidance to Joby and Archer Aviation, as well as German eVTOL manufacturer Lilium. The agency said it will also make minor changes to two other aircraft certification bases awarded under section 21.17(a).
But there’s a bigger issue. As noted earlier, there are no airworthiness standards or operating rules for powered-lift aircraft. That means the FAA must develop an entirely new set of regulations, which it began doing in early 2022 through a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR).
The SFAR was initially slated to appear in the Federal Register this past spring but instead published this month. Now, stakeholders have 48 days to provide comments, which the FAA said it will use to develop a final rule by 2024. That’s just one year before several air taxi firms, such as Archer and Joby Aviation, plan to enter service.
Because the agency created a powered-lift category pilot rating in 1997, there is no way for civilian pilots to operate AAM aircraft—the rule calls for them to have experience flying powered-lift civilian aircraft, none of which have been certified. The proposed SFAR would circumvent this by approving an initial group of powered-lift pilots. It would also determine which operating rules apply to powered-lift aircraft.
But the 1997 powered-lift definition creates another problem. Per FAA regulations, powered-lift aircraft cannot operate as “air carriers,” meaning they cannot fly passengers or cargo commercially.
To address this, the FAA had to retread previous steps. In December, it published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to revisit the previously proposed revisions to Parts 110 and 119 that would have authorized commercial powered-lift operations. Had the rule been finalized back in 2017, it would have kept the agency on schedule, FAA technical staff told the DOT.
So far, the agency has published an AAM blueprint and told FLYING it will release an initial integration plan next month. But neither is comprehensive, and the DOT warned it also has “many years” of work ahead to create airspace management and infrastructure regulations.
“The [FAA] will likely continue to face challenges as it progresses through the certification process for AAM aircraft, including reviewing novel features and establishing new operational regulations,” the auditors noted.
Communication on CECI
The Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation (CECI) was founded in 2020 within the Policy and Innovation Division of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service. But few within the FAA or the AAM industry seem to know what CECI does.
The audit found CECI does not sufficiently adhere to Government Accountability Office standards and that the FAA has not established proper policies, procedures, or communications around its role in certification.
Internal communications around CECI are fragmented, the DOT said. The FAA said it assists in initial certification activities and projects that have significant innovative technologies. But several FAA staff, managers, and field offices remain uncertain of its responsibilities.
In 2021, the agency attempted to solve this problem by creating an Intake Board, which routed AAM applications either to CECI officers or local certification offices. But it has not shared details on this process with external stakeholders. Another effort involved the creation of an AAM Integration Executive Council, which convened once in April 2021 but has not conducted a formal meeting since.
The FAA did note, though, it will publish new details on CECI’s role internally and externally by December 30. It also finalized a reorganization of its Aviation Safety Office in April, co-locating CECI managers with project officers from the Certification Coordination office.
“This move streamlines and combines all certification engagement activities, both pre-application and during formal project execution, under one branch manager with authority to oversee the division of tasks and clean handoff of early engagement projects to the certification team at the appropriate time,” the agency said in response to the audit.
Change in the Air
In response to the audit’s findings, the DOT made four recommendations to the FAA, all of which the agency concurred.
Two call for the acceleration of the SFAR for powered-lift pilot certification and operations and the NRPM for powered-lift integration into Parts 110 and 119. For each, the DOT requested the FAA create a plan for completion of rulemaking that includes milestones and a process for updating stakeholders.
Another recommendation asks the agency to identify the causes of insufficient communication and AAM decision-making, requesting it develop a process for managing disagreement on future projects. And the last calls for new policies and procedures explaining CECI’s role in certification.
In response, the FAA said it would implement the latter two requests by December 31. By then, it will provide an update to the DOT on the actions it will take to address the first two.
“The FAA is fully committed to carrying out rulemaking and organizational measures—some of which are already underway—to address the issues raised by [DOT] and improve the efficiency and clarity of the processes for advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft certification and entry into service,” the agency said. “By doing these steps, FAA maintains its commitment to the appropriate and necessary level of safety expected by the flying public.”
If those words are any indication, there are some major changes in store at the FAA. Based on the DOT’s assessment, they’ll be needed in order to get air taxi routes—several of which are planned for airports by 2025—off the ground.