October 18, 2018

Supersonic: From white paper to White House



As followers of the Niskanen Center know, over the past two years we have been tireless advocates for reforms to enable the return of civil supersonic aviation. We’ve made our case through a major white paper, op-eds, more op-eds, blog posts, an educational website, Hill briefings, podcasts, letters of support, and direct engagement with policy leaders in Congress and the FAA. Affordable supersonic transport, we have consistently argued, will help to connect the world through speed, and break us out of the deeper technological stagnation in aviation and atoms that have been with us for decades.

Now, with the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (.pdf) passed and signed into law, our vision of a supersonic future is becoming a reality. Indeed, from white paper to White House, the supersonic provisions contained in this FAA Reauthorization represent the first legislation on civil supersonic aviation in nearly 60 years. Among other things, the law:

  • directs the FAA to exercise leadership on civil supersonic aviation, with an eye towards fostering the conditions for its return. This will prove particularly valuable on the international stage, where the United States, through the International Civil Aviation Organization, plays an influential role in shaping global aviation standards.
  • gives the FAA two years to issue a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to establish a new type-certification for civil supersonic aircraft. Careful analysis of the existing statute revealed existing type and airworthiness certifications only applied to subsonic aircraft, contrary to the FAA’s past interpretation. The creation of a new category for certifying civil supersonic aircraft will thus fill a major gap in existing regulation, and allow certification requirements to be crafted around the unique needs of supersonic aircraft.
  • directs the FAA to review the feasibility of amending the ban on civil supersonic overland every two years in light of new data and technological developments, beginning in 2020. Complacency is no longer an option when it comes to the FAA’s overland policy. This represents a major win for the Niskanen Center as the leading opponent of ban.

Here is a sample of some of the most consequential elements of the law from the perspective of supersonic overland, much of which carried over from the Lee-Gardner amendment:

SEC. 181. FAA LEADERSHIP ON CIVIL SUPERSONIC AIRCRAFT

b(2)iv: …the [FAA] Administrator shall … obtain the input of aerospace industry stakeholders regarding … issues related to standards and regulations for the type certification and safe operation of civil supersonic aircraft, including noise certification, including—…challenges relating to ensuring that standards and regulations aimed at relieving and protecting the public health and welfare from aircraft noise and sonic booms are economically reasonable, technologically practicable, and appropriate for civil supersonic aircraft;


f(5): Beginning December 31, 2020, and every 2 years thereafter, the Administrator shall review available aircraft noise and performance data, and consult with heads of appropriate Federal agencies, to determine whether section 91.817 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, and Appendix B of part 91 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, may be amended, consistent with section 44715 of title 49, United States Code, to permit supersonic flight of civil aircraft over land in the United States.


f(6): The portion of the regulation issued by the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration titled ‘Revision of General Operating and Flight Rules’’ and published in the Federal Register on August 18, 1989 (54 Fed. Reg. 34284) that restricts operation of civil aircraft at a true flight Mach number greater than 1 shall have no force or effect beginning on the date on which the Administrator publishes in the Federal Register a final rule specifying sonic boom noise standards for civil supersonic aircraft.

So there you have it. For 45 years, the 1973 ban on supersonic overland persisted through little more than regulatory inertia. With that inertia broken, we are finally, and quite literally, accelerating supersonic into the future.

See you there.