Airlines and missile launches compete for airspace as FAA manages demand

The SpaceX launch pad is seen from the Air Force One window at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Evan Vucci | AP

WASHINGTON. Space companies are launching more rockets than ever, intensifying competition for airspace just as travelers are returning to flying in droves and leaving the FAA in the middle to keep things moving.

The FAA has long been responsible for overseeing U.S. airspace, addressing disruptions to air travel due to weather, military events, or technical failures. Add to this the rapidly growing market for space launches, and the complex puzzle of making room in the sky becomes even more delicate.

Some of the agency’s strategies to meet growing demand include minimizing the time airspace is closed and expanding beyond popular tourist destinations like Florida to launch sites as far away as Alaska.

“Space is cheap now. Operators can fly into space, and now it’s not just governments, but private companies as well — it’s a huge paradigm shift,” said Duane Freer, manager of the FAA’s Space Operations Division.

“We have made significant strides in reducing impact and better managing airspace for launch and re-entry,” Freer told CNBC. “Not so long ago, SpaceX was a new company, and these were all conditional ideas.”

The FAA managed U.S. airspace for a record 92 space missions in 2022, up 33% from a year earlier, and expects to exceed that figure this year. This number includes both rocket launches and capsule re-entries, and is steadily rising.

Most of last year’s missions were launched from Florida, putting a strain on airspace in the state, which is already facing a unique air traffic control challenge: The Sunshine State has attracted more and more travelers in recent years and is facing frequent thunderstorms several months of the year.

Last year, airlines operated 722,180 flights to and from Florida, indicating a faster recovery in pre-pandemic flight levels in the state than the national average. Miami International Airport announced that 2022 will be record year for passengers.

This volume of air traffic means that a rocket launch, even a routine and planned one, can be a major problem for passenger airlines. The disruption to airspace outside of Florida is impacting routes over the Atlantic, Freer said, calling the flights “really big and heavy hits.”

This could change the tug-of-war of airspace priority in favor of airlines: on one occasion, Freer recalled, his office coaxed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when the space agency was considering attempting to launch its Artemis I lunar mission in the days immediately before and after Day Thanksgiving.

“We worked very closely with NASA to mitigate these impacts and actually eliminate these launch opportunities because the impact on aviation would be too great,” Freer said.

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And the need to balance the influx of space flights with the needs of airlines continues unabated. Even if the airspace is closed for a short time, travel delays could last much longer as the impact spreads to overburdened airports and day-to-day crews.

The FAA has spent the past five years introducing new tools and upgrading systems for its teams and controllers. He met with airlines last year to discuss congestion mitigation initiatives in Florida, and his Space Co-Decision Committee, which works to integrate space operations into the nation’s airspace system, will meet with airline executives at Southwest Airlines’ at headquarters next month, the FAA said.

Competing Priorities

A Falcon Heavy rocket launches the USSF-67 mission on January 15, 2023 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


Rerouting means flying extra miles, which adds to airline costs. Some airline executives have cited the missile launches as an additional hurdle in an airspace that is already crowded with flights as well as military action.

“Every time there’s a new change or wrinkle, let’s say we’re dealing with a lot more rocket and satellite launches off the coast of Florida… which affects the airspace,” american airlines This was announced by CEO Robert Isom at the US Travel Association conference in September.

“Airspace is going to be a critical, critical issue,” Isom said, urging emerging industries to contribute to the cost of air traffic control.

Airlines fund the federal agency through airfare and fuel taxes. General aviation also contributes through fuel taxes. The space industry does not have a formalized air traffic control system.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby last month, discussing the FAA’s recent Pilot Alert System failure that halted flights out of the US for several hours, said the agency had been depleted by the additional workload associated with allocating resources for space launches, drones and certification. aircraft.

“They had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Kirby said last month during a phone call with his company. “They’ve been asked to do more, and they’re doing it for less.”

Reducing disruptions

Schedule of commercial space launches licensed or authorized by the FAA (excluding launches licensed by other US government agencies such as NASA or the Department of Defense).

Federal Aviation Administration

Among a number of variables, there are two significant time constraints that the FAA has to contend with when it comes to missile launches: windows and cleaning.

Both may be rocket jargon, but they reflect considerations that are just as important as the launch itself. The launch window refers to the period of time, often several hours long, during which a rocket must leave the ground in order to reach its intended destination in space. A scrub is a delayed countdown and often results in a delay of a day or more.

Together they create a moving target for space launches and commercial airlines eyeing the same airspace.

A traffic situation display showing both an aircraft, blue, and a missile launch airspace closure zone, red and yellow.

Federal Aviation Administration

Over the past five years, the FAA has made eight major efforts to improve the effectiveness of closing airspace around launches. Systems have been put in place to help divert as few aircraft as possible—only those flying the missile’s planned flight path—to reduce the amount of time airspace closes at either end of the window and highlight key mission triggers such as when rocket fuel is loaded, to better know when to close and open airspace.

Short of a successful launch, scrubs can be just as devastating to air traffic. The rocket countdown can be delayed or canceled until the very last moment.

In 2022, the FAA counted 61 emergency launches, which it defines as a launch that was canceled within 24 hours of its intended launch time. But overall, according to the FAA, launch timeliness improved in 2022 by 76% compared to 62% three years earlier.

Two years ago, the FAA introduced one of its most useful tools: the Space Data Integrator. It monitors the missile in near real time using data exchanged by the launch operator and keeps the FAA informed about the status of the missile in real time.

Demonstration of a space data integrator tracking a rocket launch.

Federal Aviation Administration

SDI “was a big step forward for us,” Freer said, noting that in the event of a missile failure, his teams could hit the malfunction button and instantly create a debris zone to keep planes out.

“Now we have [rocket’s] standing on the same piece of glass with our aircraft … this is a significant step forward for air traffic and it really points us towards a future where we really integrate,” Freer said.

SpaceX is currently participating in the FAA’s SDI to mitigate disruptions, and Freer emphasized that “many new carriers are working on this process.” Blue Origin and Firefly are part of the onboarding process and will likely join the program next, he said.

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