Grounded before departure: Innovation in Air Travel

Services like Flytenow and technology for supersonic flights could have vastly improved air travel in terms of cost, speed, and ease. Yet regulations have stalled these innovations.

By Rick Barton

The history of human transportation is a story of innovation. From the wheel to the airplane, improvements in our ability to move goods and people are driven by the desire for faster, cheaper, and more comfortable means of travel. As ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft rapidly improve short-term ground travel, though, the technological antiquity of air travel stands in stark contrast.

Flytenow: Uber for Planes?

For passengers looking to travel around a city, ride-hailing apps offer a convenient way to secure a ride. For passengers looking to travel farther distances, a now-defunct company called Flytenow sought to offer what some referred to as “Uber of the skies.”

Yet as and Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, and Evan Swarztrauber, communications director at TechFreedom, discussed during their Tech Policy Podcast, Flytenow was not “Uber of the skies.” Rather, it merely provided a technological adaptation of a long-standing service.

In the pre-internet age (and still today) non-commercial pilots with small aircraft frequently would post on physical bulletin boards to coordinate flights with potential passengers. Under existing law, pilots are allowed to split the cost of the flight with the passenger if they are traveling for a common purpose. The practice is similar to carpooling, only with planes

Flytenow’s plan was to bring these bulletin board conversations to the internet to better connect pilots and passengers. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) quickly stepped in and ruled that any pilots operating on the service would be operating commercially and would need to obtain common carrier licensing. The cost in time and money to obtain such a classification would be far too burdensome for private pilots to obtain, and as a result the service was essentially shut down.

While Flytenow is appealing a lawsuit against the FAA to the Supreme Court, for the time being passengers must rely on traditional airlines to meet their travel needs. Unfortunately, flight sharing is not the only area of aviation prevented from adopting technology by an overzealous FAA.

Supersonic Speeds: Decades-Old Technology Still Unused

In addition to limiting flight sharing, FAA regulations have also made it difficult for air travel innovations to improve speed. In 1973, the FAA imposed a ban on supersonic travel over the United States. Regulators believed that the “sonic booms” aircraft generated when passing the sound barrier were hazardous to human health and infrastructure and required further study.

However, numerous tests of sonic boom damage on infrastructure had already taken place during the mid-1960s, including the construction of a full nuclear test town. The conclusions drawn from these tests showed that sonic booms were harmless to infrastructure — hardly the destructive force the FAA feared nearly a decade later when it imposed the ban.

Because of the FAA’s ban, the Concorde jet, a supersonic airliner, became limited to flights between New York’s JFK Airport and London’s Heathrow airport. When the Concorde was tested in the 1970s at Heathrow, following the FAA ban, the test showed that the supersonic jet’s takeoffs and landings generated noise levels nearly identical to other passenger liners.

Despite these findings, the Concorde couldn’t keep up with maintenance costs due in part to its inability to scale it service beyond the transatlantic route. When demand further decreased following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Concorde was retired from service in 2003.

Now, decades after the Concorde was developed, new technologies enable supersonic aircraft to be lighter, quieter, and more efficient than their predecessors. If supersonic airliners from the 1970s were safe, it is reasonable to think that today’s aircraft would be equally, if not more, safe. Yet, the FAA has failed to update its regulations

The annoyance of sonic booms poses the largest difficulty to lifting the ban on supersonic flight, and it’s unrealistic to assume that the sounds of mini explosions in the sky above wouldn’t affect anyone.

To address this, the FAA could conceivably implement noise standard guidelines to limit the impact of the booms. However, the agency refuses to issue these guidelines until the noise impacts of supersonic flight are shown to be “acceptable.” Yet without an FAA definition of “acceptable,” innovators are put in the difficult position of attempting to prove to the FAA the efficacy of supersonic flight without the means of testing it. With such regulatory uncertainty, investors are far less willing to risk money on projects that regulators may view unfavorably.

As American roadways adopt autonomous ride-sharing vehicles, America’s innovative aviators are increasingly left grounded by regulators so worried about worst-case scenarios that best-case scenarios cannot be realized. It is easy to visualize a future in which an individual shares a ride in a self-driving vehicle to the airport only to regress to 1970s-era air travel at the gate.

Air travel shouldn’t lag significantly behind road travel in terms of innovation. But the difficulties supersonic aircraft and Flytenow have faced illustrate the regulatory environment that limits transportation advances. If regulators were to adopt a view of permissionless innovation toward aviation, they would open up the potential for air travelers to benefit significantly from increased options, faster speeds, and lower prices.

Moreover, regulators are also risk averse when it comes to road travel, despite the relative ease with which road travel has adapted to innovation. As entrepreneurs introduce technological advances, such as driverless cars, that could further improve all kinds of travel, society will have to determine how to create an environment that promotes innovation while maintaining public safety. (The Charles Koch Institute and Lincoln Initiative explored this topic with an event in October.)

With technology and innovation rapidly affecting almost every sector of the economy, it remains unreasonable that a ban from the era of disco balls and technologically illiterate regulation should continue to hold back modern aviation technology. The potential economic and social gains of fast, cheap, and efficient air travel are enormous. Rather than inhibit its arrival, the FAA ought to turn on the runway lights, lift its bans, and allow technology to transform the industry.