SpaceX Falcon Heavy
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off Feb. 6 on its successful inaugural mission. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The commercial space and aviation industries are working closer together to address issues about access to airspace, a relationship that has improved over the last year.

At an Oct. 31 workshop organized by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), representatives of both industries called for efforts to modernize the national airspace system to better integrate commercial launches into it.

“I really, truly believe that we’ve set a path now for collaboration,” said Capt. Joe DePete, president of ALPA, at the event, which coincided with the release of an ALPA white paper on the issue.

That hasn’t always been the case. The effects of commercial launches on the national airspace system attracted the attention, and criticism, of the aviation industry after the February 2018 inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“For us in our industry, this was a groundbreaking moment,” said Eric Stallmer, president of CSF, of that launch. “We thought it was the greatest thing that could possibly happen. For others, this was a breaking point.”

That launch was a breaking point because it cordoned off a large area of airspace in the Atlantic for several hours, disrupting flights. That launch remains a sore point today for the aviation industry. DePete, in his opening remarks, read off the statistics from that launch: 563 delayed flights and 4,600 cumulative minutes of delays. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

However, that Falcon Heavy launch is something of an outlier. Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, said he looked at data from the first nine months of 2018 on all flights that were disrupted by space launch activities. “It came out to 0.05%,” he said.

Disruptions, he added, can go both ways. “A single GA [general aviation aircraft] can stop a launch,” he said, by straying into restricted airspace. “We’ve had that happen.”

He argued that improvements to the national airspace system shouldn’t be based on delays. “I’m not sure that’s the way to articulate to Congress and other places to fix this problem. It’s a safety problem.”

Those fixes, as discussed at the workshop, are focused on ways to more dynamically allocate airspace, closing smaller sections of airspace for shorter periods of time depending on whether, and when, a launch takes place. Current limitations, primarily in communicating data about launches, mean that airspace restrictions are static, regardless of when in a launch window the launch takes place.

The FAA has been working on one system, called the Space Data Integrator (SDI), to provide more information about launches, but air traffic controllers say that is not enough. “SDI is certainly nice, and better than what we’ve had in the past, which is next to nothing, but it’s still just an awareness tool,” said Jim Ullmann, director of safety and technology at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “What we need is a decision support tool, something that goes on the controllers’ scopes.”

Such a tool, he said, would provide a “moving hazard area” for controllers to route planes around when a launch takes place, predicting where that hazard area will be minutes into the future. “The ability to look at that and dynamically make decisions about rerouting aircraft based on that is an absolute must-have, I think,” he said.

Better sharing of upcoming launch information can also help. “The airlines have a very, very brittle system,” said Jim Muncy, a senior advisor to the CSF. “There isn’t a lot of slack in the system.” Telling airlines about upcoming launches, he argued, can allow them to make decisions about schedules and staffing to better accommodate any delays a launch might cause.

The event made clear that the relationship between the aviation and space industries, which was more adversarial last year, has become more cooperative as the two seek both short- and long-term improvements to the airspace system to accommodate increase aircraft traffic and space launches. ALPA and CSF issued a joint statement at the end of the workshop vowing continued cooperation on the issue.

“Success comes in small steps,” said Stallmer. “We’re not going to do this huge leap forward, but instead you take these small steps. From our industry perspective, we are having that success.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...