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Commercial Airlines Worried: Billionaire Space Race Means Heavier Air Traffic And More Flight Delays

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The growth of commercial spaceflight led by billionaires such as Elon Musk is posing greater operational challenges to domestic and international airlines.

A Federal Aviation Administration data published on June 26 by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) stated that every new rocket launch means heavier air traffic and more flight delays.

On the day that SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, 563 flights were delayed and 62 miles were added to commercial flights in the southeastern part of the United States. ALPA reported that airlines have to incur sizable expenses as they try to avoid areas closer to launch sites.

"The regulatory standards governing human space flight must evolve as the industry matures so that regulations neither stifle technology development nor expose crew ... to avoidable risks," as noted on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing at the U.S. House of Representatives.

Integrating Commercial Space Launch And Daily Flights

The U.S. government licensed 23 commercial space launches last year, but experts said they expect the number to increase as the industry matures.

ALPA president Tim Canoll said the challenge is how to integrate space launches into the daily flow of 42,000 commercial flights under the Federal Aviation Authority management.

Delays not only lead to worse air traffic but also higher costs of block time. Airlines incur about $68.48 per minute or $4,109 per hour that a plane taxis or flies. On Feb. 6, when Musk's rocket launched into space, the average flight delay was eight minutes.

To put into perspective, ALPA calculated that airline companies have to spend an additional $70,000 for every 10 minutes of delay. These problems are more likely to aggravate as both space and commercial flights increase on a year-on-year basis.

Solving The Problem

The FAA normally restricts airspace for commercial airlines during space launches as a safety precaution in case a rocket explodes mid-air. Industry consultants said the FAA should limit the closed area in the sky to minimize airline disruptions.

Audrey Powers, deputy general counsel of Blue Origin, said that the operations of the aviation industry will remain safe by ensuring that launch activities adopt a performance-based approach.

"Any improvement to FAA's regulations must be a coordinated effort with the USAF and Federal Ranges or there will be no net benefit to operators. The duplicative authority will remain and the Ranges will continue to impose their prescriptive and outdated requirements," Powers said during her speech at the House Subcommittee on Aviation hearing.

Powers added that regulators should build a system that will automate real-time rocket data and free up blocked airspace.

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