Aviation and Spaceflight Can Safely Share—and Succeed in—U.S. Airspace

By Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President

The bold idea of flying miles above Earth has captivated humankind for thousands of years and airline pilots from our earliest days. And it’s because of our love of flight that ALPA pilots are helping lead an effort to ensure that spaceflight is both successful and safe—beginning with how we integrate spaceflight into airspace shared with airplanes carrying passengers and cargo.

Commercial spaceflight has existed for decades. It’s the next fascinating step in the evolution of human efforts to take to the air and beyond—efforts that began with aviation. What is new about commercial space travel is its rapidly widening capability and capacity in terms of distance and degree. We have brand-new types of operations, increasing frequencies, and growing numbers of spaceports in operation with more being proposed all the time.

The future success and growth of both commercial aviation and space operations depend completely on this country’s ability to maintain our high standard of safety. While we work to maximize the current and future potential of both sectors to drive the economy and contribute to our status as the global leader in technological innovation, neither will happen if we aren’t safe.

While spaceflight allows us to travel above and beyond the globe, the path to get us to its safe integration is astonishingly down-to-earth: learning from the past and working together to create a safer future. Based on ALPA’s more than eight decades of aviation safety experience, the principles we believe hold the key include

  • Managing the national airspace system (NAS) to benefit all Americans.
  • Focusing on the long-term goal of integrating, rather than segregating, space operations into the NAS.
  • Ensuring that spacecraft and spaceflight operations meet the equivalent level of safety as other airspace users.
  • Providing the FAA with adequate and appropriate resources to ensure safety in spaceflight integration.
  • Working now to foster stakeholder collaboration, planning, and analysis to inform the necessary new policies, procedures, and regulations in the era of spaceflight integration.

With these principles as a guide, ALPA has worked to bring the commercial space and commercial aviation community together to collaborate as we pursue our mutual goal of achieving efficient access to a safe NAS. Commercial aviation has proven examples of how to cultivate the sort of collaboration needed to meet the challenge.

The Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) is a joint effort of labor, airlines, manufacturers, industry trade groups, and regulator. CAST identifies top areas for safety action by analyzing past accident and incident data as well leveraging safety data collected through the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program. While the team’s initial goal was to reduce fatality risk by 80 percent in 10 years, the team has now achieved a more than 90 percent reduction—a tremendous safety accomplishment.

I attended a recent meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee and took the opportunity to make these points clear to its members. As you’ll read in “To the Stratosphere…and Beyond,” a guest column by Dan Elwell, FAA acting administrator, I believe our nation’s leaders are listening to the lessons of CAST. They understand that airline pilots’ collective voice must be heard on safety.

As the U.S. airline industry works to meet future passenger and shipper demand and spaceflight operations also increase, the aerospace industry must jointly create policies, regulations, and procedures to share resources efficiently and safely. ALPA believes a similar collaborative and risk-predictive approach will be essential as we work to integrate spaceflight operations safely.

The CAST experience of creating synergy on a massive scale is just one of the aviation best practices we’ve gained in a century of commercial aviation––and there are many more to share. That’s the reason ALPA is hosting a one-day symposium on commercial space this fall—to gather all the stakeholders and explore all we can about aerospace safety and efficiency as we enter the next frontier of air transportation.

As someone who loves to fly, I’m eager to see where the future takes air transportation. As the president of ALPA, I’m confident that the aerospace industry can work together to maintain the high level of safety and efficiency that Americans expect and demand from U.S. air transportation.