Aviation Policy News: A Smarter Way Forward on Airline Emissions
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Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: A Smarter Way Forward on Airline Emissions

Also in this issue: Boeing's 737 MAX and the future of certification, TSA doesn’t know if its screening equipment works, how Australia’s light-handed airport regulation works, and more.

In this issue:

A Smarter Way Forward on Airline CO2 Emissions

Global aviation is under assault for being a growing cause of CO2 emissions, and neither the industry nor governments have agreed on a cost-effective way forward. The “flight shame” movement seems thus far to be limited to Europe, but its lobbying and demonstrations could lead public officials to take unwise actions.

A New York Times piece, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Flying?” cited calls for possible measures such as punitive taxes on frequent flyers, banning frequent-flyer miles programs, and disincentivizing “excessive flying.” The authors quoted the founder of a UK group that points the finger at “a small wealthy elite group of air travelers”—when in fact nearly all frequent flyers do so for business.

One thing aviation needs to do is to defend the importance of both business travel and leisure travel. Few public officials likely realize that in terms of CO2 emissions per passenger mile, flying is significantly better than driving. Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute calculated that driving is about twice as energy-intensive (and hence CO2-intensive) as flying commercially. But the improvements in motor vehicle fuel economy and the market penetration of electric vehicles will reduce driving’s carbon-intensiveness in the coming decades. Of course, for international trips that cross oceans, there is no possibility of making them via car or train.

So what is aviation to do? Biofuels are a possible longer-term solution, but are nowhere near available or affordable and probably will remain that way for the next decade or two. And electric airliners (apart from very small craft) are many decades away from feasibility. That leaves the alternatives of taxation and CO2 offsets. Higher taxes on flying are all the rage in Europe currently and are staunchly opposed by airline trade associations. In the near term, carbon taxes on airlines would marginally reduce the extent of passenger demand, but unless the revenues were devoted to serious research and development (R&D) on things like biofuels and electric aircraft, they would otherwise just enrich government coffers.

Airlines currently support a rather weak carbon offsetting agreement hammered out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) would require airlines to offset the growth in their international CO2 emissions after 2020. And this applies only to airlines that account for at least one percent of global revenue passenger miles. Also, small countries are exempt, and this exemption applies to any airline that is registered in such a country. Another big concern is whether the offsets would be real—as opposed to things that would be happening anyway (like a certain amount of tree-planting). Moreover, participation in CORSIA would be voluntary until 2027.

Last month the International Energy agency released its World Energy Outlook 2019. As Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey summarized the main takeaway from this report, “We likely won’t cut carbon dioxide emissions 45 percent by 2030,” which is the target the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says would be needed to avoid more than a global average temperature increase of 1.5º by 2100. Whether that assessment is correct or not, it is likely to put pressure on half-hearted schemes like CORSIA to be made far more stringent. (Note that both EasyJet and Air France have recently announced that they will offset all current and future emissions on their intra-Europe flights.)

The fresh thinking that I recommend focuses on removing CO2 from the atmosphere, in parallel with reducing the emissions of CO2 from activities such as transportation and electricity production. There is a whole array of recent research that suggests specific ways to remove large amounts of existing carbon from the atmosphere. Here are two of them:

  • Massive Forest Restoration: A number of recent papers in peer-reviewed journals have found that there is room, on land areas adjacent to existing forests, for huge amounts of carbon-absorbing trees to be planted. A widely noted paper in Science by Jean-Francois Bastin and others estimates that reforesting 2.2 billion acres of such land could absorb 205 gigatonnes of carbon. There are a number of other scientific papers along these lines and an overview article in Scientific American.
  • Agricultural Land Restoration: Bloomberg News reported that for an estimated $300 billion, about 2 billion acres of worn-out farmland could be restored to productive use, sequestering carbon in the process. It cited research by the UN Food & Agriculture Organization and others. The Wall Street Journal discussed a start-up company, Indigo Ag Inc., that is setting up a market for carbon credits based on this idea.

Another recent article discussed a new Energy Futures Initiative headed by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Its aim is to assess the feasibility of emerging CO2 removal technologies via a $10.7 billion R&D program. Its creation followed the 2018 release of a National Academy of Sciences report on negative emissions technology and sequestration, which recommended removal of 10 billion metric tons of CO2 per year through 2050 and 20 billion per year thereafter.

So there are very large-scale opportunities for carbon removal, which would be a more meaningful course for aviation to pursue since it has only limited opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions. It could still use a mechanism like CORSIA, but that effort would be far more credible and effective if it (1) applied to all airlines from all countries and to business jets as well, (2) applied to all CO2 emissions, not just increases, and (3) began in 2021, not 2027.

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TSA Doesn’t Know If Screening Equipment Actually Works, GAO Finds

In the TSA Modernization Act of 2018, Congress asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review whether and how the agency allocates resources for screening technology based on risk, as well as reviewing the process by which TSA develops standards for the technologies to detect prohibited items (guns, explosives, etc.) and ensures that the systems meet operational requirements after they are deployed at airports.

That sounds like another my-eyes-glaze-over report on how a government agency does not always follow ideal standards and procedures in various aspects of its operation. And a significant fraction of the report—GAO-20-56, released December 2019—is just that. GAO found:

  • TSA does not always operationalize detection standards (for example, no technology may be available to meet a defined need at that point);
  • TSA has not updated its 2015 guidance document on developing new standards to reflect how it actually operates today;
  • TSA, in five of seven “material threat assessments” that GAO reviewed, did not document key steps and in some cases, the people who developed those steps are no longer at TSA so organizational knowledge has been lost;
  • The extent to which TSA has considered risks in its assessments is unclear, because so much of the process has not been documented (as illustrated by several specific examples).

Those are indications of sloppy management, which TSA promises to correct. But there is a real show-stopper starting on page 26 of the report: TSA does not ensure that screening technologies continue to meet detection requirements after deployment to airport.”

Think about that for a minute. The bullet points above are merely matters of procedure and documentation. TSA would be better managed if it fixed those things. But this one suggests that security at airports may actually be at risk.

GAO gives an example on page 27, in which TSA, in 2015 and 2016 removed a sample of explosives trace detection (ETD) units and bottled liquid scanner units from airports and tested them in its Transportation Security Laboratory. And the lab found that “some deployed units for each technology no longer met detection requirements.” TSA officials told GAO they did not pass muster “because they were not adequately maintained.” And they also said that because of this, they implemented preventive maintenance procedures. But the report points out that TSA still does not periodically re-test deployed equipment to make sure that it still meets the defined detection requirements. TSA said the units are “calibrated” daily to make sure they are still operational, but that does not mean the units meet the required performance levels. TSA’s excuse? It has never received a mandate to ensure that its screening technologies continue to meet detection requirements after deployment to airports!

GAO calculated the estimated value of the screening technologies TSA had in place at airports as of the end of FY 2018 at $3.1 billion. What this report tells us is that neither TSA nor anyone else knows how much of this equipment is actually doing the job it was designed to do. If anything would incline air travelers to view TSA’s checkpoints as security theater, this is likely to do it.

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What If Congress Bans Delegation of Aircraft Certification?   

Part of the fall-out from the Boeing 737 MAX crashes and several other problems has been increasing congressional criticism of the long-standing global practice of aviation safety regulators delegating certain aircraft certification responsibilities to experts at the companies that manufacture the aircraft. The practice is called Organizational Designation Authorization (ODA). Indeed, the National Transportation Safety Board identified shortcomings in the ODA process used to certify the 737 MAX. Congress has increased the scope of ODA over the decades, expanding it as recently as the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

What if Congress took the radical step of banning the practice? In a Senate hearing back in March, then-Acting Administrator Dan Elwell said that taking on all the certification tasks now performed by delegation would require a budget increase of $1.8 billion per year and the addition of about 10,000 staff members. Yet these are strange political times and a number of radical changes might be up for discussion after the 2020 election.

In that context, I was intrigued by a commentary in the Chicago Tribune last month titled, “Get Boeing and the FAA Out of the Air Safety Inspection Process.” The author was Christine Negroni, author of two respected books on airline crashes, whose blog is called Flying Lessons. Like many members of Congress, she agrees that in the case of the 737 MAX, delegation failed. But she suggests a different approach: delegating the responsibilities not to the manufacturers (where there will always be potential conflicts of interest) but to a nonprofit body whose only interest is safety.

The historical case she points to is Underwriters Laboratories (UL). She learned from UL archivist Richard Madden that between 1921 and 1925, “UL was responsible for making sure planes were safe.” Given the small size of aircraft manufacturing then, UL had 35 inspectors who created standards and certified the completed planes. As you may know, this was the kind of thing UL was created to do. It dates back to 1894 when insurance underwriters commissioned electrical engineer William Merrill to assess the riskiness of new electrical products and systems. It was formally incorporated in 1901 as Underwriters Laboratories, and today is the world’s largest independent, non-profit testing laboratory, testing and certifying a wide range of potentially risky products, including lithium-ion batteries and autonomous vehicle systems.

Negroni discussed the idea of taking on aircraft certification with UL officials, and reports that they were not interested in getting into this huge and complex new field. And that, I thought, would be that. Except when I got the Dec. 7 edition of the daily JDA Journal in which Negroni’s commentary was reprinted. Head JDA writer Sandy Murdock, former FAA Chief Counsel and Deputy Administrator, whom Negroni had quoted briefly in her column, says “There is no reason why an organization like the FAA should have to hire PhDs and have enough technical people to keep up with Boeing. We should have Underwriters Labs do the work and have Boeing pay for it.” Murdock also suggested that “If the ODA is cancelled by the Hill, there will be a plethora of unemployed aeronautical engineers, materials experts, computer scientists, and so on.” They would be a ready-made workforce for whichever organization opted to perform independent aircraft certification.

The logical candidate for that is aviation insurance underwriters. Back in 1982, I edited a book titled Instead of Regulation (D.C. Heath/Lexington Books). In the chapter on the FAA (which I wrote), I gave the example of fire insurance. Shortly before the creation of UL, the fire insurance industry identified the need for fire-safety standards and inspection of municipal fire departments, in order to decide what rates to charge property owners in various locales. They created the National Board of Fire Underwriters, which asked the National Fire Protection Association to formulate fire protection standards for cities; the first Standards for Fire Grading were published in 1903. A far more detailed Standard Schedule for Grading Cities and Towns of the United States was issued to insurance companies and rating bureaus nationwide in 1915. That basic system still exists today, and the fire insurance rates every property owner pays depend on the grading of fire protection in the jurisdiction in question.

In the book chapter, I suggested the creation of an Aviation Underwriters Safety Organization (AUSO) that would develop standards for aircraft design (and perhaps also maintenance and operation). The AUSO’s value to the insurance industry would be only as good as its reputation for integrity, as in the case of Underwriters Laboratories. In writing that chapter, I actually interviewed people at several aviation insurers but found no real interest in taking on this new role. But if legislative bodies here and overseas start to repeal aspects of ODA, perhaps the time may have come to take independent, non-political aircraft certification seriously.

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New Autoland Capability for Small Planes Has Big Implications

November brought reports from both Air Traffic Management and Aviation Week about a breakthrough in aircraft autonomy. Garmin, which produces avionics primarily for business jets and general aviation planes, unveiled an emergency autoland system for general aviation. In the event a GA pilot is unable to remain in control (e.g., a heart attack or stroke), others on board can press a protected red button and the Autoland system takes over, contacts air traffic control, heads for the nearest available airport, and lands the plane. It also briefs passengers on what is going on, advising them to not touch any of the controls, and keeps them posted on the flight’s progress. Autoland will be available next year on at least three GA aircraft: the Cirrus Vision Jet, the Piper M600 turboprop, and the Daher TBM 900 turboprop.

The Aviation Week article provided details on how the system works, and included a first-person account by reporter Fred George of a demonstration flight on an M600 in Kansas. George refers to Autoland as “a virtual, digital copilot that can take over control of the aircraft, evaluate winds, weather, and fuel reserves, then select a suitable diversion airfield and fly the aircraft to the best runway at the landing facility.” Even more, it switches the transponder to a special emergency code, and makes radio calls to air traffic control (ATC) to arrange for its route, approach, and landing. Autoland can control the plane in all three axes, control the throttle, extend the landing gear and flaps at the appropriate point, and guide the plane to the touchdown zone, and even use differential braking to steer once on the ground.

The current version cannot do landings at every airport. It requires a runway end equipped for GPS-based LPV or LNAV/VNAV approaches. George reports that nearly 12,000 such runway ends are available in the United States, but the minimum runway length needed depends on the specific aircraft in which Autoland is installed.

Garmin began developing Autoland in 2010, and began its first flight tests in 2014. FAA has approved the system, but it must be certified for each type of aircraft in which it is installed. Piper said it expects certification on the M600 by the end of this year, and Cirrus expects the same in early 2020, so it can start delivering Vision Jets with Autoland installed.

My first thought on reading about this development was the implications for urban air mobility (UAM). I have been somewhat skeptical of much that has been written about UAM in the last few years, partly because of questions of cost and feasibility of the various aircraft concepts. But another major factor is that the business case for on-demand or scheduled urban air taxis depends on there being no expense for a human pilot. My skepticism on that point was both how soon credible automation would be developed and, even more important, whether FAA would certify it.

These questions appear to have been answered in the affirmative. Landing is the most difficult portion of flying for a pilot to learn and get good at. But Garmin has mastered that, and automating the other phases of flight should not be that difficult. And FAA is certifying planes equipped with Garmin’s system. Hence, Autoland strikes me as a critically important step towards viable Urban Air Mobility.

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How Australia’s Light-Handed Airport Regulation Works

In the October 2019 issue of this newsletter I mentioned that, in contrast to the price-cap regulation of major airports in the U.K. and some other European countries, Australia relies primarily on competition law (what we Americans call antitrust law) to constrain anti-customer behavior by its privatized airports. Economists refer to this as an undue exercise of market power. In that article, however, I misstated how the Australian process works. Reader Mike Tretheway of InterVISTAS Consulting emailed to explain who does what.

Three government bodies are involved: the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), the Productivity Commission (PC), and the Minister of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Development. The minister ultimately decides whether airports and other infrastructure are to be explicitly regulated, based in part on recommendations from a review conducted by the PC. If regulation is ordered, it is then implemented by the ACCC.

Prior to the major airports being leased to investor-owned companies at the turn of this century, there was U.K.-type price-cap regulation by the ACCC. It was abolished by the minister in 2001 in favor of light-handed regulation. About every five years, the Productivity Commission (PC) reviews airport performance. The ACCC submits its views for the PC to consider, but so do airports, airlines, state governments, and other stakeholders. In the 2018/2019 review, the ACCC’s submission expressed its view that airports were exercising market power. This was also the strongly expressed view of major airlines such as Qantas and Virgin Australia, supported by airline trade organizations A4ANZ and IATA, all of which pointed to “grossly excessive” airport profits as evidence. If the PC had agreed with this view, the minister could have “declared” that the airports needed regulation, and the ACCC would then have administered price-cap regulation on charges to airlines.

In their defense, the airports’ association cited the large capital expenditures airports have made to expand airport capacity and improve terminal facilities and services, and they observed that Australian airport charges and productivity were comparable to those of peer airports in other countries. Airport investors also accused the airlines of hypocrisy, citing the recent high profitability of major airlines and their implementation of a range of ancillary fees on passengers.

To the dismay of airline groups, the PC’s final recommendations found that while airports do have market power, they had not unduly exercised that power. While the airports were earning profits, the relevant issue is whether airport charges were higher than those of their peers, and that is not the case. On Dec. 11, the minister agreed, and hence there will be no price-cap regulation for the coming five-year period.

The PC (and subsequently the minister) did suggest that there should be better monitoring and reporting of airport performance. They also called for attention to market-distorting rules, such as the non-market airport slots regime which includes micro-managed regulations such as prohibiting regional airline flights from using peak-period slots. (Congestion pricing of runway use would be a much better solution.)

While I agree with this outcome, it was only a temporary victory for light-handed regulation. Infrastructure Investor called attention to a speech by ACCC Chairman Rod Sims concerning a similar contretemps over the privatized Port of Newcastle. A large customer of this port, coal producer Glencore, asked for the port to be “declared” due to a recent increase in access charges. The minister declined to act, so the port remains exempt from ACCC regulation. But Infrastructure Investor suggested that these cases, despite upholding light-handed regulation, should give investors pause.

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News Notes

Mexican Government: $9 Billion to Cancel New Mexico City Airport
A year after Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador abruptly cancelled the under-construction replacement for the over-capacity Mexico City airport, the total cost of that decision is being put at $9 billion. This includes an estimate of the settlement of legal claims by contractors and bondholders of the Texcoco Airport project plus the $4 billion the government is spending to add two commercial runways to the Santa Lucia air force base and other improvements at the existing Mexico City airport. The Texcoco airport would have cost about $8.3 billion to complete.

New Opening Date for Berlin Brandenberg: Oct. 31, 2020
Airport developer/operator Flughafen Berlin Brandenberg GmbH announced on Dec. 3 that the endlessly delayed airport at Schoenefeld will, for sure, open next year on Oct. 31. As recounted in the July issue of this newsletter, the project was begun in 1997 as a  design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) privately financed public-private partnership. After being unable to reach agreement with the winning bidder by 2003, the Berlin government decided to design the project itself and manage a conventional procurement. The result has been 17 years of delays, including a last-minute postponement of the originally planned grand opening in 2012. The most recent cost estimate was $8.25 billion vs. the originally planned $2.6 billion.

34 Nations Will Use Space-Based ADS-B Next Year
Aviation Week reported (Nov. 25-Dec. 8, 2019) that by the end of next year, the ANSPs of 34 countries will be using Aireon’s space-based ADS-B services. Of that total 17 are in Africa, all of which receive ATC services from the Agency for Air Navigation Safety in Africa & Madagascar (ASECNA). The Dutch Caribbean ANSP is the latest to start using Aireon’s service, which covers the Curacao flight information region of oceanic airspace in the Caribbean (116,000 sq. mi.). Others getting close to operational status include the ANSPs of Iceland, India, and Italy. FAA’s Air Traffic Organization will begin an operational evaluation of space-based ADS-B in the Caribbean in March.

American to Begin Using ADS-B/In
American Airlines is close to receiving FAA certification of an ADS-B/In system for use in more than 300 Airbus A321 aircraft. The system is SafeRoute+ developed by ACSS, a joint venture of L3Harris and Thales. The system will provide cockpit display of traffic information, assisted visual separation, and interval management (which gives pilots more control of spacing during the arrivals portion of the flight). Retrofitting the new equipment in American’s first two A321s took just three days, including post-installation testing.

Military and Civil ATC Merged in Belgium
As of Dec. 2, air traffic control in Belgian airspace is now managed by a single air traffic management system, SAS2. It was commissioned by the Belgian Ministry of Defense in 2016 and is now fully operational. Controllers at Maastricht Upper Area Control Center (MUAC), responsible for upper-level ATC in Belgian airspace, have converted to SAS2, as well. Lower-altitude flights in Belgium and Luxembourg are managed by a separate ANSP—skeyes. It is moving forward with SAS3, which when implemented in 2025 will mean all of this airspace will be using the same system.

New Privately Financed Airport for Manila
Seven companies have purchased bid documents to compete for the concession to finance, develop, and operate a second international airport for Manila, capital of the Philippines, reports Inframationnews.com. It will be developed in three phases, with the one-runway first phase estimated at $3 billion out of an ultimate cost estimated at $10 billion. The new airport will be located on government-owned land at Sangley Point and is intended to relieve congestion at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Sydney Airport to Test Digital Tower Technology
Canada’s Searidge Technology last month announced a contract with Airservices Australia, under which the company will provide an ultra-high-definition display of the main runway at SYD, enabling controllers and Australia’s air safety regulator to experience what a digital (remote) tower would be like. At this point, the most likely application at SYD is seen to be a contingency tower, rather than replacing the existing conventional tower.

Contract Tower Bill Would Ease Controller Shortage
A bipartisan bill introduced last month by Sens. Jerry Moran (R, KS), Jim Inhofe (R, OK), and Patty Murray (D, WA) would eliminate a financial penalty faced by controllers working beyond the general FAA retirement age of 56 if they continue their careers at contract towers. Both the Contract Tower Association (representing airports) and controllers’ union NATCA are supporting the legislation.

Airports Going Off-Grid for More-Secure Electric Power
Pittsburgh International Airport is one of the first major U.S. airports to create a self-sufficient energy system. Failure of grid power in recent years at airports such as Atlanta, Orange County (CA), Philadelphia, and most recently New Orleans, is very disruptive. Conventional generator-based backup power systems power only essential functions, leading to serious disruptions of operations. The new microgrid at PIT will be supplied by onsite natural gas wells and 8,000 solar panels on airport land; it is expected to be operational by 2021 and would also power the hotel and gas station on the airport property. Detroit Metro also has a microgrid in place, and a number of other large and medium hubs are considering doing likewise.

ADS-B/In for Avoiding Runway Incursions
Honeywell has developed and is in final testing of a system intended to warn taxiing pilots of possible collisions with other aircraft. Surf IA (Surface Indications & Alert) will use ADS-B/Out signals from other aircraft to feed cockpit displays of what other aircraft are doing, providing both visual and audible warnings of possible collisions. Honeywell’s initial work on the system took place in Europe as part of the SESAR program. Prototypes have been in U.S. flight testing since 2017. Visual displays will be on 2-D moving map displays and on advanced 3-D displays Honeywell is starting to market.

50-Mile Drone Corridor Completed in New York State
State officials last month announced the completion of a 50-mile corridor, from Syracuse to the Mohawk Valley, for testing unmanned aerial systems (UAS) beyond visual line of sight. The corridor is managed by NUAIR, which says it is the most-advanced drone testing corridor in the country. Companies will be able to test UASs and also UAS traffic management technologies using the corridor.

ATC Corporations Overview in New Book on Public-Private Partnerships
Just out from publisher Springer is the book Public-Private Partnerships, edited by Robert M. Clark and Simon Hakim. Chapter 5 is your editor’s contribution, “Air Traffic Control as a Quasi-Private Corporation.” The chapter provides an overview of the 30-year history of ATC being separated from transportation agencies as self-supporting ANSPs in more than 60 countries. It reviews research findings on how corporatization has changed ATC, and it concludes with a capsule history of attempts to do likewise in the United States.

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Quotable Quotes

“According to [former World Bank president] Kim, all heads of state understand the benefits that private finance can bring to their economies…Kim used the 2007 expansion of the Queen Amalia international airport in Jordan as an example of a successful PPP. ‘Rather than paying a huge debt service, [Jordan] has added $1 billion to their treasury and [now] has one of the best airports in the Middle East,’ he said. ‘We believe these opportunities can be created everywhere.’”
—“Four Takeaways from Our Hong Kong Summit,” Infrastructure Investor, Nov. 21, 2019

“Speaking in Brussels during [Boeing’s] recent market outlook briefing to stakeholders, Boeing’s Randy Tinseth stressed that in emerging Europe—and in other developing economies across the world, ‘flight pride’ still prevails among a growing middle class. ‘There are no homogeneous views on flight shame. It is a broad and diverse world,’ he said, adding that he sees no reason for shame in what the industry has achieved. Air transport is a catalyst of globalization and supports 3.6 percent of world GDP and 67 million jobs, he said, adding that airlines produce 80 percent of their carbon on routes where no other mode of transport is available.”
—Cathy Buyck, “Boeing Exec Sees Limits to ‘Flight Shame’ Movement,” AIN Online, Dec. 9, 2019

“Our mission is to make personal aviation more accessible by continuing to improve passenger comfort and safety. Safe Return delivers the next step toward autonomous flight, bringing a new level of confidence to the overall flying experience by providing the ultimate level of safety and control to passengers. Together with the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, we have once again set a new standard for safety in personal air travel.”
—Zean Nielsen, CEO, Cirrus Aircraft, in “Cirrus Debuts Autonomous Flight with Safe Return Autoland,” Air Traffic Management, Nov. 4, 2019

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Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.