WASHINGTON — Space companies are launching more rockets than ever, ratcheting up competition for air space just as travelers return to flying in droves — and leaving the Federal Aviation Administration in the middle to keep things moving.
The FAA has long been responsible for overseeing U.S. airspace, mitigating air travel disruptions due to weather, military events or technical glitches. Add in the rapidly expanding space launch market, and the complicated puzzle-work of making room in the skies gets all the more delicate.
Some of the agency’s strategies for addressing the growing demand include minimizing the time airspace is closed and expanding beyond popular travel spots like Florida to launch sites as far away as Alaska.
“Space is cheap now. Operators can get to space and it’s not just nation states, it’s now private companies — that’s a huge change in the paradigm,” said Duane Freer, manager of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization Space Operations office.
“We’ve made significant strides in lessening the impact and managing the airspace much more efficiently for launch and reentry missions,” Freer told CNBC. “It wasn’t that long ago that SpaceX was a new company and these were all notional ideas.”
The FAA managed U.S. airspace for a record-breaking 92 space missions in 2022, up 33% from the year prior, and it expects to top that this year. That number includes both rocket launches and capsule reentries, and has been steadily climbing.
Most of last year’s missions launched from Florida, straining airspace in a state that already has a unique air traffic control challenge: the Sunshine State has drawn more and more travelers in recent years and faces frequent thunderstorms several months a year.
Airlines operated 722,180 flights to, from and within Florida last year, marking a faster recovery to pre-pandemic flying levels in the state than the national average. Miami International Airport announced 2022 was a record-breaking year for passengers.
That airline volume means a rocket launch, even one that’s routine and on schedule, can pose a significant challenge to passenger airlines. Disrupting airspace out of Florida affects routes over the Atlantic Ocean, Freer said, calling those flights the “really big, heavy hitters.”
That can swing the airspace priority tug-of-war in the airlines’ favor: In one instance, Freer recalled, his office talked down the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when the space agency was considering an attempt to launch its lunar Artemis I mission in the days immediately before and after Thanksgiving.
“We worked very collaboratively with NASA on mitigating those impacts and actually eliminating those launch opportunities, because the impact to aviation would have been far too great,” Freer said.
And the need to balance the influx of spaceflights against the needs of airlines isn’t letting up. Even if airspace is closed briefly, travel delays could last much longer as the impact cascades to congested airports and crews time out for the day.
The FAA has spent the last five years debuting new tools and modernizing systems for its teams and controllers. It met with airlines last year to discuss initiatives to alleviate congestion in Florida, and its Space Collaborative Decision Making committee, which works to integrate space operations into the national airspace system, will meet with airline executives at Southwest Airlines’ headquarters next month, the FAA said.
The majority of last year’s space missions were by Elon Musk’s SpaceX – which set a new annual launch record for the company of 61 in 2022. It’s kicked off this year at a blistering pace, too, with a launch every four days.
The rest of last year’s launches were made up of missions by NASA, Rocket Lab, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Astra, Virgin Orbit, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Firefly.
Freer’s office acts as a liaison between space companies, ranges or spaceports, and air traffic controllers, though the FAA also plays a role in licensing and regulating launches. Crucially, the FAA talks regularly with the airlines, to closing wide swaths of airspace leading up to, during, and after a launch.
“Generally the impact to the aviation community is in reroutes,” Freer said. “We don’t see the traditional delays – with ground delay programs or ground stops – associated with launches.”
Rerouting means flying additional miles, which increases costs to airlines. Some airline CEOs have called out rocket launches as an additional obstacle in airspace that’s already crowded with flights, as well as military activity.
“Every time there’s a new change or a wrinkle, say, we’re dealing with many more rocket launches and satellite launches out in the Florida coast … that impacts airspace,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said at a U.S. Travel Association conference in September.
“Air space is going to be a critical, critical issue,” Isom said, calling on new industries to contribute to the cost of air traffic control.
Airlines kick in funding for the federal agency through air ticket and fuel taxes. General aviation also contributes through fuel taxes. The space industry doesn’t have a formalized system for supporting air traffic control.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby last month, in discussing a recent FAA pilot-alert system outage that halted U.S. departures for several hours, said the agency has been stretched thin by the added workloads of dedicating resources to space launches, drones and aircraft certification.
“They’ve had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Kirby said on his company’s earnings call last month. “They were asked to do more, and they’re doing it with less money.”
Freer said the FAA doesn’t track know how many flights are rerouted due launches, saying “it’s impossible to determine” due to a variety of potential factors, such as weather, military activity, or an airline’s own decisions.
Since 2018, the FAA has cut airspace closures in half for launches: From an average of more than 4 hours to just over 2 hours today – even as short as 30 minutes in some cases – with airspace reopened as quickly as three minutes after a rocket travels through the closed area. The agency has recovered an average of 127 minutes per launch, Freer said.
The FAA is also increasingly licensing launches in more geographical areas. In 2022, the agency licensed 50 space launches from Florida, 13 from California, nine from New Zealand, four from Texas, two from Virginia and one from Alaska.
Among a number of variables, there are two significant time-sucks the FAA has to manage when it comes to rocket launches: Windows and scrubs.
Both may be rocket lingo, but they represent considerations that are just as important as a liftoff itself. A launch window refers to a period of time, often several hours long, during which a rocket needs to get off the ground in order to reach its intended destination in space. A scrub represents when a countdown is postponed, and often leads to delays of a day or more.
Together they create a moving target for space launches and the commercial airlines eyeing the same air space.
Over the last five years, the FAA implemented eight major efforts to improve airspace closure efficiency around launches. It’s introduced systems to help reroute as few aircraft as possible — only those that are flying into the planned flight path of a rocket — to reduce the time that airspace is closed on either end of the window, and to 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 disruptive to air traffic. A rocket countdown can be postponed or canceled up until the final moments.
In 2022, the FAA counted 61 scrubs, which it defines as a launch that is canceled within 24 hours of an intended liftoff time. But overall, the on-time performance of launches improved in 2022 – at 76%, up from 62% three years prior, according to the FAA.
Two years ago the FAA debuted one of its most helpful tools yet: the “Space Data Integrator.” It tracks a rocket in near real-time, through data shared by the launch operator, and keeps the FAA updated in real time on the health of the rocket.
SDI “was a big step forward for us,” Freer said, noting in the case of a rocket failure his teams can hit a malfunction button and instantly create a debris area to keep aircraft away.
“We now have the [rocket’s] position on that same piece of glass with our aircraft … that’s a significant step forward for air traffic, and that really points us to the future where we’re truly integrating,” Freer said.
SpaceX currently participates in the FAA’s SDI to mitigate disruptions, and Freer emphasized that “a lot of newer operators are working through that process.” Blue Origin and Firefly are part of an onboarding process, he said, and are likely to joining the program next.