Hail a black cab on a busy London street, and you can assume that the driver will follow the ‘rules of the road’ to your destination. However, what can a commuter expect when taxis begin to take flight?
With Airbus, Boeing and even Uber, amongst others, developing and investing in electric take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, the concept of flying taxis is quickly becoming a reality rather than a concept relegated to Sci-Fi. Test flights are currently being conducted on eVTOL aircraft, and while estimations for their commercial roll-out vary, it is likely we will see flying taxis in the next few years. One market research company has estimated that 430,000 air taxis will be in operation by 2040. As such, ‘rules of the air’ are in order for the safe operation of air taxis.
EASA’s Rules for Operation of Air Taxis
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published a Notice of Proposed Amendment 2022-06 (‘NPA’) which introduces a regulatory framework for, amongst other things, the operation of air taxis in cities. The proposal covers important aspects such as crew and operator licensing, airworthiness and maintenance, and rules of air operations.
According to EASA, the NPA complements existing EU regulations, including those pertaining to unmanned aircraft systems, the certification of VTOL aircraft and EASA guidance on the design of vertiports (i.e. infrastructure for landing, charging and taking-off). You can read our earlier posts on these here and here.
Amongst the key provisions introduced are: minimum visibility requirements, operating altitudes, the establishment of predefined routs and a limitation on the number of vertiports. Importantly, the NPA proposes separating regulations for air taxis from helicopters, and introduces the term “VTOL-capable aircraft” to facilitate the distinction from helicopters.
The proposed framework promotes a new ecosystem for advanced and urban air mobility, while taking into account concerns regarding safety, privacy, the environment and noise pollution. Although forward-looking, the framework does not yet prescribe rules relating to the potential future developments of eVTOLs, including autonomous aircraft (although the proposal does acknowledge remote-controlled flight). The NPA is open to public consultation until September 30 2022, however, EASA has not indicated when the final rules will be published and implemented.
Will the UK follow the EU’s lead?
EASA’s announcement represents the first of its kind: EASA’s Executive Director Patrick Ky stated, “With this, EASA becomes the first aviation regulator worldwide to release a comprehensive regulatory framework for operations of VTOL-capable aircraft, which will offer air taxi and similar services.” What is yet to be seen is if other jurisdictions’ aviation authorities will soon adopt similar rules.
The need to develop operational rules is already on the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) radar. In March 2022, the UK Air Mobility Consortium, in collaboration with the CAA, published a concept of operations that described potential ways to integrate urban air mobility into UK airspace. These recommendations intend to shape and inform future regulations.
The CAA has previously followed EASA’s lead when it comes to the certification standards of eVTOLs. We reported last month (see here) that the CAA will use the certification standards informing the ‘Special Condition for small-category VTOL aircraft’, developed by EASA, as the basis for the certification of new models of eVTOL aircraft in the UK.
It is not a far-off possibility that the CAA may implement similar rules to EASA for the operation of air taxis. Such a move would further harmonise eVTOL regulations across jurisdictions. Whatever the CAA’s course of action, the regulator will need to confirm its ‘rules of the air’ for eVTOLs before we will see these air taxis whizzing between the Shard and the Tower of London.