The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has released what it calls the world’s first comprehensive regulatory framework for urban air taxi flight operations covering “airworthiness, air operations, flight crew licensing, and rules of the air.”
The document, unveiled Thursday, remains open for public comment through this September, and it helps answer several critical questions pilots have long had about this entirely new emerging sector of aviation: electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The proposal brings the European Union one step closer to electric air taxis becoming a reality.
What will the flight rules be that govern these newfangled aircraft? Which pilots will be authorized to undergo required training and certification? Where will they be authorized to take off, fly, land? What about autonomous air taxis—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with no pilots on board? How will that be dealt with?
— EASA (@EASA) June 30, 2022
These are many of the same questions being asked by industry insiders in the U.S., just seven weeks after the FAA shifted its required path for certificating eVTOLs. The FAA hasn’t addressed many of the issues covered in the EASA document.
EASA’s proposed framework for operations is undoubtedly being closely read in offices of leading eVTOL developers that are now flight testing these small, battery-enabled aircraft that seat up to nine passengers with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 3,175 kg (7,000 pounds) or less.
In fact, two companies based in Germany—Lilium (NASDAQ: LILM) and Volocopter— are developing exactly these kinds of aircraft—using two very different designs. Both are working closely with EASA and have made significant progress toward certification.
EASA acknowledges in the document that the timing of the proposal is being driven by European developers looking to enter service very soon. The six-passenger Lilium Jet is expected to enter service in 2025. Volocopter has set a goal to provide air taxi service with its VoloCity two-seater in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. “It is to be anticipated that some manned VTOL-capable aircraft manufacturers/operators will already be ready to start operations before the adoption and applicability of the subject draft implementing and delegated acts,” the document says.
So let’s take a look at some of the key revelations in the document, as they relate to pilots.
‘Air Taxis at the Core’
The proposed rules acknowledge that although there are “many different use cases, air taxis will be the type of innovative operations more largely deployed in Europe in the near future.” Regulators are outright saying that air taxi operations “will be the core” of what it calls “innovative air mobility”— the “safe, secure, and sustainable air mobility of passengers and cargo enabled by new-generation technology.”
Sustainability is at the heart of the global electric air taxi movement, which aims to create effective, efficient, and profitable air transportation over gridlocked traffic on the ground without using fossil-based fuels.
The EASA document proposes separating regulations for air taxis from helicopters, by designating air taxis as “VTOL-capable aircraft.” The definition of “helicopter” would be changed to “heavier-than-air aircraft supported in flight chiefly by the reaction of the air on up to two power-driven rotors on substantially vertical axes.” Aircraft with more than two power-driven rotors “should be initially classified as ‘VTOL-capable aircraft,’ the document says, for the purposes of the new regulations.
Air Taxi Pilots Will Be Existing Airplane or Rotorcraft Pilots
New pilots flying under EASA regulations will not be part of initial commercial flight operations for air taxis, according to the document.
“Only pilots that already hold a license for a conventional aircraft could be involved in operations with manned VTOL-capable aircraft, with no possibility for ab initio pilot training in VTOL-capable aircraft,” the proposal says. “Only experienced pilots shall fly VTOL-capable aircraft during the initial phase of their operation. Experience gained during this phase will contribute to the development of a robust and comprehensive flight crew licensing framework.”
Trained Pilots Will Be Issued Separate Type Ratings
EASA clearly wants to ensure that—as commercial operations begin—air taxis will “be supported by the availability of appropriately qualified and certificated flight crews.” The document calls for provisions that will “allow holders of commercial pilot licenses (CPL) for aeroplanes or helicopters to be issued with a VTOL-capable aircraft type rating that will be endorsed on their [CPLs] after having completed type-rating training.”
New rules will be drafted to “address type-rating training including revalidation and renewal, privileges for flying under instrument flight rules (IFR), as well as related instructor and examiner privileges.” Commercial plots of conventional airplanes and helicopters who want to shift their careers to air taxis “will not need to obtain a separate pilot license.” They will be able to add a “VTOL-capable aircraft type rating to their existing license.”
Nothing in the document specifies if each new aircraft design will have its own separate type rating for pilots. The FAA has said it wants certify pilots for each type of new eVTOL aircraft in the U.S., although it has not yet formally proposed any regulations for operating eVTOLs, as EASA has done with this document.
See and Avoid
Some things for the new air taxi pilots in Europe will remain the same, including what it calls Standardized European Rules of the Air (SERA).
“One of the underlying SERA principles is the principle of ‘see and avoid’ which shall be used by the pilot-in-command as the last line of defense to avoid mid-air collisions in all airspace classes,” the document says. When a pilot is on board these new types of aircraft, the see-and-avoid principle should be “automatically complied with.”
It’s worth noting that many electric air taxi developers are planning to use on-board pilots for the first several years of commercial operations, and eventually transition to automated or remote-controlled flight. With appropriate foresight, EASA acknowledges this in its proposed rules. “In the future such operations will be performed on the same platforms but remotely piloted… therefore it is necessary to support the transitioning phase and to ensure a smooth integration of these new operational concepts in the current civil aviation domains.”
It’s interesting that EASA addresses terminology regarding fuel sources for these new battery-enabled aircraft types. Should regulators continue to use the word “fuel” when talking about an electric air taxi and not a conventional helicopter that burns avgas or jet-A?
“It was concluded that the terms ‘fuel/energy’ would be used whenever appropriate, but the term ‘fuel’ would be retained when necessary, in particular in sentences that contain standardized phraseology,” the document says.
Routes and Vertiports Will Be Limited
EASA formally acknowledges in the document that where these new aircraft fly is directly linked to safety. For example, in European cities, the agency expects initial commercial operations “will follow a limited set of predefined routes or areas/corridors for which the relevant competent authorities have got assurance that the air and ground risks are properly mitigated.”
In addition, there will be a limited number of vertiports and operating sites in each city, and the safe and efficient air traffic taking off from and landing at those areas together with other air traffic in urban environments and existing air operations must be ensured.
However, the document also allows for the possibility that technological leaps could make more routes and more vertiports acceptable from a safety perspective.
“If, during the development process, it can be demonstrated and validated that safety, environmental protection and compatibility, security, and privacy can be guaranteed without the need for predefined routes or areas/corridors…then this potential limitation would be removed.”
As the eVTOL movement continues to move forward, the proposed regulatory framework demonstrates EASA’s proactive stance in handling critical issues that otherwise could slow, cripple, or even block the electric air taxi sector from success. It will be interesting to see what happens next.