Congress puts its thumb on the scale for eVTOL operating rules

Powered-lift provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act should make it easier for eVTOLs to enter commercial service — at least in theory

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Since the beginning of 2022, the electric vertical take-off and landing developers Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation, Beta Technologies and Supernal have collectively spent more than $4 million on federal lobbying efforts in the U.S., according to the online database Open Secrets. Last week, those efforts paid off when Congress passed — and U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law — an FAA Reauthorization Act that champions advanced air mobility and directs the FAA to take steps to facilitate operations of powered-lift aircraft.

The legislation, which provides funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years, extends to more than 1,000 pages and includes a laundry list of priorities for the agency across all sectors of aviation. AAM receives its own subtitle in the act and the explicit declaration that “the United States should take actions to become a global leader in advanced air mobility”.

Related: A united eVTOL industry reckons with the FAA’s shift to powered-lift

Among other things, the act weighs in on the FAA’s Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) for powered-lift pilot certification and operations, which was published as a proposed rule in June 2023. The Air Current has previously reported on the eVTOL industry’s near-unanimous opposition to certain provisions of the proposed SFAR, and Congress appears to have largely sided with industry on these points, endorsing pilot training requirements and performance-based energy reserves that would make it easier for first-generation eVTOLs to launch commercial operations.

Industry associations and eVTOL developers have enthusiastically welcomed passage of the act. In an article for Joby, former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and former Deputy and Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell wrote: “By mandating the FAA lean into AAM, Congress aims to ensure that the FAA will serve as a driving force for innovation and continued U.S. leadership while keeping safety at the heart of its mission.” Huerta is a member of the California-based eVTOL developer’s board of directors, and Elwell serves on its board of advisors.

Yet, the FAA retains some wiggle room when it comes to implementing directions from Congress, and language in the proposed SFAR suggests that members of its staff have strongly held opinions on certain points with which industry is in disagreement. It therefore remains to be seen whether the agency will come around to Congress’s expansive embrace of industry positions, or narrowly comply with the letter of the law without significantly altering its general posture towards powered-lift.

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