GAO reviews how FAA’s commercial space licences help manage airspace

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reviewed the factors that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers as part of its licensing of commercial space launch and reentry operations. 

Commercial space transportation enables essential activities such as digital communications, navigation, and weather forecasting. In the US, the industry has expanded into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, with licensed launches and reentries growing from 9 in 2012 to 124 in 2023. Total launch and reentry operations are forecast to rise as high as 288 in 2027. Whilst there are obvious benefits, the growth of commercial space transportation has implications for how the FAA manages the national airspace around launches and reentries, and affects other airspace users, such as commercial airlines. 

The FAA conducts environmental reviews that are required by the National Environmental Policy Act and must be completed before a commercial space licence is issued. FAA may conduct new reviews or reevaluate and use reviews that were previously completed for launch sites or other activities. According to FAA’s airspace management procedures, after a licence has been issued, the operator and FAA collaborate on an ongoing basis about scheduling and safely carrying out launch or reentry operations and informing other airspace users. FAA launch and reentry licensing regulations direct operators to determine the amount of airspace that needs to be closed to control the potential safety risks posed by the operations. Such risks include hazardous debris from normal launch and reentry operations as well as failed operations. Operators conduct the analysis necessary to identify this airspace, known as a flight hazard area, as part of the safety analysis required for a launch and reentry licence application. The flight hazard area informs what portion of airspace will be closed to other airspace users during the proposed operation.

To determine the current licensing picture, GAO reviewed statutes, regulations, FAA guidance, and documentation from environmental reviews associated with 22 domestic commercial space vehicle launch and reentry licences as of July 2023. GAO also interviewed FAA officials and commercial space stakeholders, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, and five associations representing the aviation and commercial space industries. The government watchdog publicly announced the results of its review in a report on May 28.

GAO found that 19 of the 22 reviews the FAA prepared for current launch and reentry licence applications were based on previous environmental reviews for the original licensing effort. The FAA concluded that the potential environmental impacts of these launch and reentry activities were either below significant levels or were mitigated to be below significant levels overall. 

FAA officials told GAO that they work with operators throughout the licensing process to identify ways to limit the effects of flight hazard areas on other airspace users. According to FAA officials, approving or denying a licence application based on the effects on other airspace users is not within FAA’s statutory authority. However, during the licensing process, FAA begins to identify and plan for these effects while still ensuring operations meet safety criteria. These planning efforts include establishing procedures for communicating closures. Also, before granting a licensed operator’s request for a specific launch time, FAA estimates the impact on other airspace users by using historical air traffic data to identify affected routes and the number of affected aircraft. 

During the course of GAO’s review, FAA officials said they provide operators with preliminary estimates of air traffic impacts of proposed flight hazard areas. They said they also discuss potential mitigations to reduce the impact of the operation on other airspace users. For example, FAA officials said that instead of representing the flight hazard area as a standard rectangle, the corners may be trimmed to fit more closely to the contours of risk. As a result, the flight hazard area could look more like an octagon than a rectangle.

GAO found that the FAA has denied launch times that operators requested based on the effect the launch would have on other airspace users. Though the FAA does not retain records on the number of times such denials have occurred, they provided the watchdog with two examples, both related to peak holiday travel. First, the FAA received a request from an operator to launch on a Presidents’ Day holiday, which would have affected the FAA’s ability to manage peak holiday air traffic. Instead, the FAA offered the days before and after the holiday as an alternative, which were satisfactory to the operator. Second, FAA officials said that they denied an operator’s request to launch during the days immediately before Thanksgiving, as that is a time of high commercial airline traffic and the impact on other users would have been significant.

FAA regulations require operators to document, as part of their application, the process for informing aviation stakeholders about flight hazard areas for a particular operation. As GAO explains in its report, the FAA includes this information in a letter of agreement. To develop the letter of agreement, the FAA holds meetings with stakeholders having responsibilities relevant to the operations to discuss the vehicle and expected procedures for launches or reentries. The FAA also issues an airspace management plan to affected air traffic control facilities, notifies other airspace users, and operates a hotline during the operation to help implement the flight hazard area.

The FAA has reported decreasing the amount of time airspace is closed by using time-based management procedures. These procedures attempt to more efficiently identify aircraft projected to enter a hazard area when space operations occur to reduce re-routing. In a report that FAA officials told GAO they provided to Congress in 2023, the FAA determined that 143 aircraft were delayed an average of 32 minutes in 2022, representing 0.04 percent of total minutes of delays that year. The FAA also noted that the majority of launch and reentry impacts to other airspace users are associated with additional distance and time flown, rather than delays. The FAA is pursuing technological solutions to mitigate effects of flight hazard areas on other national airspace system users. In 2021, FAA began using the Space Data Integrator operational prototype, which is designed to provide a near real-time capability to receive and monitor launch and reentry vehicle location and mission event status, and hazard area time updates. In addition, the Space Data Integrator enables data exchange with an FAA traffic flow management tool and automation of some manual processes. In the future, the Space Data Integrator may increase the distribution of launch and reentry data to additional air traffic automation systems. Along with additional air traffic control procedures, the Integrator is expected to help the FAA decrease the amount of time that restricted airspace is needed for commercial space operations.

GAO’s report also notes that the FAA convenes the Space Collaborative Decision-Making Group, where the aviation and commercial space industries can communicate with FAA about flight hazard areas and their effects. FAA officials told GAO that they may choose to hold commercial space operations at times of day and days of the week with less air traffic, based on feedback from the group. 

For more information

US Government Accountability Office

Image: An example of airspace closure for a commercial space launch (GAO)

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