Dan Elwell Photo by HAI/Mark Bennett
FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell talks about the agency’s priorities of safety, innovation, infrastructure, and accountability.
During his visit to HAI HELI-EXPO 2019, FAA Acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell sat down with ROTOR editor Gina Kvitkovich on March 6 to discuss the agency’s Compliance Program, integration of drones into the National Airspace System, and the airplane ride that prompted a certain fifth-grader to choose aviation as a career. (This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.)
Before you arrived in Atlanta for HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019, you attended the commercial space launch in Florida on March 2.
Elwell: I started my trip at 2:45 on Saturday morning, watching the historic SpaceX launch at Cape Canaveral. Then I came here to talk about the other end of the spectrum in powered flight. So it does bring it all home, that this is one huge and diverse NAS.
How will the FAA integrate UAS, or drones, into the National Airspace System (NAS)?
We’re going to do it in an iterative way—test, implement, test, implement. Not until we know something works will we put it into the NAS.
When we’re done, we’re going to have lots of different pieces that fit into overall traffic management including UAS, commercial space, rotorcraft, fixed-wing, manned, unmanned. But we’re not going to do it without full collaboration with industry because these are technologies that we’re trying to get up to speed with. That’s why Secretary Chao and the President initiated the UAS Integration Pilot Program, which brings together government and UAS operators and manufacturers—so we can watch what works and see what we don’t know.
Rotorcraft are front and center in our work on low-level integration. The incidents that you hear most about are close calls, if you will, between a rotorcraft and a UAS. But in every case, it is a careless or a clueless UAS operator who has created the potential conflict. So education is paramount.
We’ve got new rules that we’re going to promulgate for remote ID and tracking, for beyond-visual-line-of-sight over people. All of these policies are needed, of course, for UAS to grow. But if the guy off the street buying the Christmas present for his daughter isn’t making sure his daughter knows everything possible about safe operation, then any of the safeguards that we put into place won’t matter.
We could have the best safety system, the best technology, the best traffic management in the universe, but if you have a completely ignorant, unschooled, untrained person in the NAS, it all goes for naught. Educating operators and manufacturers on the importance of knowing the rules before you fly will improve the system and make our job 10 times easier.
Then we’ll add LAANC [Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, an FAA-industry program that provides drone pilots with near–real time authorizations to fly in controlled airspace]. We’ll add low-level UTM [Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management] integrated with ADS-B and legacy air traffic management.
We won’t need segregation. We’ll be interlaced, and it will be one unified system.
HAI President and CEO Matt Zuccaro (left) and FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell spoke to attendees at the HAI Annual Membership Meeting and Breakfast at HAI HELI-EXPO 2019. Photo by HAI/Robb Cohen Photography
By 2036, we’re projected to be short more than 7,500 helicopter pilots and 40,000 maintenance technicians. Are you concerned about workforce development?
The FAA does see it as a problem, and we have to attack this problem from a number of angles. Our workforce across the nation is aging, but particularly in aviation, as there has been proportionally fewer young people coming into aviation than three or four decades ago. So we don’t have as many new workers coming in, and we have an acceleration of people going out.
We need to come at this from two ways. First, we have to make it less onerous and less expensive to become either a technician or mechanic or a pilot without compromising safety, and that’s the challenge.
Second, we need to recognize that a robust aviation workforce is good for the country and the economy. Some professionals, such as doctors and teachers, are recognized as critically important, and they get special rates on federal loan repayments and things like that. It would be good to have aviation recognized as that same sort of field—there’s lots of aviation jobs that are public service jobs.
There is nothing in our mandate that says the FAA shall ensure enough pilots and mechanics for the system. We’re not responsible for ensuring the economic vitality of US aviation. But I believe that the consequence of not having enough pilots and mechanics in the labor force could have an impact on safety. Our goal is to improve safety as we go forward.
What attracted you to aviation, and how do you think we can replicate that experience for today’s youth?
When I was a kid, aviation was still really sexy. In the 1960s, airline pilot or astronaut, something like that, was named in a survey as the No. 1 dream job. Being an airline pilot isn’t in the top 20 anymore. It’s just not viewed as sexy a profession as some of the other high-tech things that kids are getting interested in.
So being a pilot was thought to be a really cool thing when I was a kid. Then when I was in fifth grade, my teacher, Mr. Tyler, offered anybody in the class who wanted to go a ride in his 172 on the weekend.
You can sit as a passenger in a plane a million times, but until you sit in the cockpit and have the cockpit experience of taking off and looking up in front of you, you have no concept of what flight is like. Once I got that, I knew that I was going to fly. I didn’t know how, but I knew I was going to. [Elwell earned his pilot’s wings after graduating from the US Air Force Academy.]
I think that still applies today. I don’t care how many PlayStation games kids do, I don’t care how many Call of Duty championships they win, there is nothing that compares to physically flying an airplane. I would also include the high-fidelity simulators that we have today—that’s just the ultimate video game. The more kids you put in a sim, the more on fire they get for the industry.
And there’s really very affordable sims. Red Bird makes sims that you could probably afford to get into elementary or junior high schools. And that’s where you have to target the kids—you can’t wait until high school.
The airlines have mandatory safety management systems (SMS). Do you see SMS becoming mandatory for all operators?
Yes, I would like to see that. Going forward, SMS, along with Organization Designation Authority (ODA) for manufacturers, is the only way an industry that’s growing the way ours is, with UAS, commercial space, urban air mobility, and all these things—it’s the only way that we’re going to be able to maintain safety, oversight, and regulatory control without strangling a piece of the industry.
So yes, I’m a huge fan of SMS. I also am a huge fan of deregulation and not imposing burdensome regulations on the industry. One of the issues when we started SMS was that the requirements were so onerous that small operators couldn’t afford to do it. We have to develop a better system. I’d like to see us be able to tailor the SMS requirements for the size of the operation.
If the industry would be such that, if you don’t have an SMS, you can’t play, you can’t compete, then even a voluntary SMS program, such as we have now, would accomplish our goal of improving safety in the system.
One of the issues we have is that foreign authorities don’t recognize a voluntary SMS regulatory regime: they want it to be mandatory. And so even when companies have voluntarily adopted an SMS and that SMS aligns perfectly with what we want in an SMS—because it’s a voluntary SMS and we don’t mandate it, it’s not recognized by some foreign authorities. So that’s another wrinkle we need to work out.
Launched in 2015, the Compliance Program moved the FAA from mandatory enforcement actions to a focus on training and counseling for most FAR violations that are not judged to be reckless or malicious. Four years in, is the FAA seeing the results that it wanted?
What we find is that repeat offenses are very rare, even on nonenforcement compliance activity, so the Compliance Program is working.
When I came in and I was getting briefed on it, my reaction was “Oh, that’s not new.” And it really isn’t. The Compliance Program is an organic outgrowth of voluntary reporting and safety reporting indemnification for those honest mistakes we make in the system.
The FAA does not wait for the accident to make the fix. We’re predictive and we’re proactive. And the only way you’re predictive and proactive is if you’re getting information from operators. And they have to know that by giving you that information, they’re not going to get violated because it was an honest error or misjudgment.
Make no mistake, we still have a very, very vibrant enforcement aspect to our oversight, but I think it makes more sense that enforcement is for willful, negligent, or criminal acts.
The aviation community may be surprised when they sit down with a regulator to review a violation of the FARs and the recommendation is more training. “I’m not gonna be fined?” Well, no. It clearly wasn’t willful, it wasn’t negligent, and you self-disclosed. When that happens, I think operators will understand the program.
Bottom line, the safety record tells the story. We’ve been at this for four or five years. If there was some seismic alteration that the Compliance Program brought to this system, you would have seen it manifested either in increased rates of incidents or accidents. We haven’t seen that. I think the Compliance Program is perfectly in keeping with the FAA’s overall safety philosophy of continual safety improvement.
What are some of your priorities for the FAA?
My priorities are first and foremost the President’s and Secretary Chao’s, which are safety, innovation, infrastructure, and accountability. Before I leave this position, I want to see us make some real strides in UAS integration and in the reintroduction of supersonic technology into the NAS. I think we can do it in the right way and make real strides in our relationship with communities, airports, and operators on noise. [Note: On March 19, President Trump nominated former Delta executive Steve Dickson to be the next FAA administrator, pending senate confirmation.]
Has your experience with UAS integration changed how the FAA wants to handle technology innovation?
Yes, I want to create an office within the FAA that assimilates new technology in a way we’ve never done before. And this goal of creating an Office of Innovation is directly strung to the priorities of President Trump and Secretary Chao that I mentioned.
I came in advising the secretary early in ‘17, but by June, I was in the FAA and getting up to speed. And I thought, Gee, you can’t turn a page in the paper and not read something about UAS. On the other hand, even in the trade press, other than the ADS-B mandate, you didn’t really hear much about NextGen. Data comm was moving along nicely, ERAM [En Route Automation Modernization] was all done, STARS [Standard Terminal Automation Replacement system] is moving along.
The FAA has a NextGen office reporting directly to the administrator, and we’ve got a director of UAS, two levels down. Yet that’s where all the world’s attention was.
At first, we thought we should sunset NextGen over time and create an Office of UAS. But we didn’t do that for other new technology. Sooner or later, a successful technology is going to become normal, everyday stuff. So what is the real issue?
The real issue is how innovation takes place now, in the 21st century. It’s not like any innovation we’ve seen in decades past because the innovation is coming from nonaviation people. So that has required us to think differently and to move a little swifter than maybe we have in the past, because the technology coming in was getting iterated much faster.
A better description for what I’m describing is an innovation incubator. Because we don’t want to be DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which conducts cutting-edge research for the US Department of Defense] or an R&D entity; that’s not where we shine.
What the FAA wants to be is an agency of creative regulators, writing standards and making regulations that fit the problem at hand in a creative way that will improve safety and efficiency and enable new ideas into the NAS. I’ve talked with you about workforce development being one of my priorities, and that includes not just the outside workforce but the one inside the FAA. We need to repurpose our employees to be the 21st century regulator. We need to hire experts in management, oversight management, SMS management, ODA management.
I would love to see this Office of Innovation really take shape by the end of this year or early next year, the initial stages. Of course, we have to do our due diligence. Some of what we would like to do will require reprogramming, and part of it might have to be done through legislation.