ALPA Advocates For Integration of Commercial Space Ops

From the Hill

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, presented testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in mid-June, providing Members of Congress the Association’s views on the FAA’s role in future space operations.

On June 16, DePete addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation at a hearing titled “Starships and Stripes Forever—An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight.” The hearing brought together industry leaders, including those from United Launch Alliance, Space Florida, and Virgin Galactic, and government representatives who testified before the committee on current trends in commercial space transportation and their perspectives on future operations.

“ALPA supports the safe integration of new and expanding users of the national airspace, including commercial spaceflight operators,” said DePete. “As the world’s largest nongovernmental aviation safety organization, we are equally committed to ensuring that new entrants do not create new risks. U.S. air transportation is the safest in the world, and this subcommittee’s leadership is among the reasons why.”

DePete noted that another reason is the highly unionized U.S. aviation workforce that has put safety first during the past century of flight. “As we consider the promise—but also the challenges—of increased spaceflight, the aviation and aerospace sectors have a proven model to follow to ensure safety,” he observed. “A similar data-driven, risk-based construct will help create a proactive safety culture for commercial spaceflight.”

DePete observed that the FAA forecasts an increase in U.S. launch activities by as much as 100 percent by 2025, noting, “These predictions mean that the FAA must build upon—and broaden—a pattern of collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors.”

As airline pilots are increasingly facing operational issues involving spaceflight, demonstrated by recent uncontrolled space debris reentry events (see “Commercial Space Operations: A Growing Concern to the Airline Industry” in the June issue), DePete emphasized ALPA’s focus on ensuring that no new risks to airline operations are introduced by space operations and called for a national space integration strategy to include

  • establishing launch planning and recovery standards;
  • establishing airworthiness and design standards, including designs that are intended to fully burn up in the upper atmosphere where possible;
  • reating standards to ensure that reentry of very large pieces of space debris occurs at a predefined location and time; and
  • requiring notification of pilots, airlines, and controllers not directly involved in a space launch about risk level changes in the airspace.

Responding to a question from Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NY) about pilots being notified of falling space debris, DePete commented, “The number one priority of my members is safety.... We have a ‘need to know’ about the areas of risk that we enter.… There is no real-time information available, and it is hard for a pilot-in-command to make informed decisions without being aware that we are entering an airspace elevated in risk.”

Additionally, the Association has called for the FAA to enhance collaboration by creating an advisory structure that brings together commercial space, drone, and aviation operators, which all use the airspace but currently provide input separately.

Regarding a question about what one recommendation or action to support space operations into the future DePete would make, he said, “Pull together the individual committees of the NAC [NextGen Advisory Committee], the DAC [Drone Advisory Committee], and the COMSTAC [Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee] that deal with airspace users and meld them together into a single integrated advisory system,” adding, “Right now, much of the work being done is segregated, and very little topic matter is being discussed in these committees on commercial space—except in the COMSTAC. Furthermore, [a single advisory system] would lead to the development of a safety culture and the beginning of full integration.

“The FAA must build upon a pattern of collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors. ALPA believes that, now more than ever, the FAA, industry, and labor can work together to create a national space integration strategy,” DePete concluded.

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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