Space Race costing airlines thousands, complicating air travel
On June 26, 2018, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a report by the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in which the association details the negative impact of commercial rocket launches on commercial air travel – more launches mean more closed airspace, more flight delays, cancellations, and fuel usage, all of which, naturally, is increasing operational costs. These are the unintended consequences of the global space race, as astonishing as its recent breakthroughs have been. So what can be done to solve the airlines vs. rockets problem?
In the U.S., commercial aircraft primarily occupy the airspace at 18,000 to 60,000 feet above the ground. But rockets actually spend very little time at those latitudes. For example, when on February 6, 2018, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy, the rocket spent just 2.5 minutes in the air throughout the launch and landing, as science and tech portal Futurism.com explains. Although this may sound as good news, whenever a spacecraft is sent up, no matter the time spent in the air, airlines which operate closer to the ground must avoid large swaths of territory and thus draw large expenses.
For instance, according to the FAA’s 2014 report that evaluated the impact of a space launch in Florida resulted in flight delays up to 23 minutes, airspace reroutes up to 84 miles, and thousands of pounds more fuel burned, as compared to similar days with no launches. On the day of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch, 563 flights were delayed and extra miles were added to flights in the southeast region of the U.S., as the FAA’s data released on June 26, 2018, by ALPA indicates.
According to ALPA‘s report, the SpaceX launch impacted 5,000 square nautical miles of airspace, which resulted in 4,645 minutes of flight delays. A single minute of delay costs a commercial airline around $68.48. So the total cost of those 4,645 minutes of delay was $318,089. Aside of the expenses due to delays, the launch also forced airlines to fly an additional 34,841 nautical miles, and consume more fuel. We will let you do the math here yourselves.
“These restrictions [of airspace] have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable,” ALPA stated in its White Paper report released on June 26, 2018. “We are smart enough to solve this problem.”
So this is why commercial launches, particularly the observable increase in the number of private launches, is becoming a huge headache for commercial airlines in the U.S. From what was only 8 orbital launches in 2015, the number rose to 21 in 2017, demonstrating that the commercial space industry is growing rapidly and will likely continue to do so, Futurism.com reports.
And as for where the launches take place – most of commercial space activity has been focused on Cape Canaveral, the U.S. Air Force post in Miami, Florida. But it is only one of 22 active U.S. launch sites and several other locales are currently pursuing new spaceport ventures, Bloomberg indicates. The trio of space tycoons – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – are dominating the commercial space industry for the moment, but as it grows, more companies and entrepreneurs will inevitably join in on the activities.
Hence, Tim Canoll, president of ALPA, has urged Congressional leaders to start working on ways to ensure that commercial space operations are safely integrated in the national airspace. “As the U.S. airline industry works to meet future passenger and shipper demand while spaceflight operations continue to increase, the aerospace industry must work together to create policies, regulations, and procedures to share resources efficiently and most of all, safely,” said Canoll at the Commercial Space Transportation Regulatory Reform hearing on June 26, 2018.
And private aerospace companies actually agree. “Commercial space launch needs to be better integrated into the national airspace,” said Caryn Schenewerk, SpaceX’s senior counsel and director of government affairs, according to Bloomberg. The ultimate goal? To incorporate spacecraft into the routine flow of the 42,000 daily aircraft that the FAA oversees.
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