China Civil Aviation Development Forum

Former Acting Deputy Administrator, Carl E. Burleson (January 07, 2018–August 12, 2019)

Thank you, for the warm welcome from the Civil Aviation Administration of China and for the opportunity to join you at this impressive event. It is an honor to be here in Beijing representing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

As we gather here this week, we find both of our countries — and all countries for that matter — on the edge of a bold new era of innovation, one that will require even closer collaboration among us as new entrants shatter old norms with their game changing technologies. I know that we have a partner in that journey with CAAC. You share a similar safety philosophy and our bilateral cooperation helps amplify our safety messages.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the FAA/CAAC partnership over the past 40 years and on how far we’ve come since the United States and China resumed diplomatic relations in 1979. Our work supported the restart of commercial air service in January 1981. The first was CAAC Flight 981, a Boeing 747SP that flew from Beijing to San Francisco.

Think about this – starting with Flight 981 in 1981, there were on average about two daily flights between mainland China and the United States. Based on the latest data from the International Air Transport Association, there are now 100 daily flights. 

That stellar growth in flight activity is also matched by what our two countries have done in practically all other aspects of aviation, including operations, aircraft certification, air traffic management, and always most importantly, aviation safety. We thank you for being our partner in this journey and look forward to the next 40 years. One thing is for sure, aviation will look much different by that time, but our bedrock principles on safety will not. 

So how do we and the world’s aviation regulators introduce these new and radically different users into the safest form of transportation on the planet? How do we do it wisely, safely, efficiently and in a reasonable timeframe?

In thinking about the challenges, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my sons on a stormy evening long ago.  

It was a sticky August night in Washington DC (we sometimes get those in Washington…) and a raging thunderstorm had knocked the electrical power out. I took the boys out to our screened-in porch to watch the driving rain, the wind and the lightning show.  My adventurous 12-year old pleaded, “Hey Dad, can I go out and play in this?” My younger son was sitting very quietly in my lap for the longest time. I finally asked him what he thought about the storm. He says, “Dad, is this any way for a seven-year-old to die?” That’s reality–two boys, from the same genetic stock, having two polar opposite views of the same phenomena they were observing. 

Their divergent views of the world is a perfect analogy for the challenge we in the aerospace industry face with the rapid development of a new technologies that enable increasingly autonomous operations. Some see an incredible opportunity for development and new markets and services. Others see this as potentially undermining safety and adding new levels of risk into the system. As a regulator, our job is to find the pathway forward. 

One area where we’re having to find that way- and quickly- is in unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, and urban air mobility vehicles, also known as flying taxis. 

As of last month, the FAA had registered almost 1.4 million UAS, nearly 400,000 of which were for commercial operations. That’s four times as many registered drones than there are manned aircraft, and we’ve been registering drones for less than four years. We already issued about 130,000 remote pilot licenses. A good many of these are small, semi-autonomous systems that you fly with your finger and a smart phone, the type made so popular by China-based DJI, now the world’s largest manufacturer of civilian drones.

Flying taxis are no longer in the realm of fantasy – they’re coming very, very soon, and all of us here will have to start thinking about whether we’ll jump into one to slip the surly bonds of traffic. 

Ehang, based here in China, is a frontrunner in the emerging urban air mobility market, It was the first to carry passengers on test flights of its fully automated, two-seat, electrically powered flying taxi. Although not yet certified by the CAAC, Ehang is delivering vehicles for a variety of demonstrations here in China, in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Other nascent air mobility companies like Uber Elevate and Kitty Hawk are also racing quickly to deploy these vehicles to the market. 

The Ehang operating concept is right out of a science fiction novel: A passenger boards the autonomous air vehicle.  He or she selects from a list of destinations on a touchscreen display and clicks a button to depart and another button to land. The vehicle flies the route autonomously but is under continuous surveillance and monitoring from a command and control center on the ground. And this is already happening in tests. 

Not hard to see what might make regulators nervous. Certifying the safety of a vehicle that carries passengers yet has no pilot on board; Figuring out how to integrate its operations with traditional air traffic; and regulating numerous fleets of these vehicles. 

Let’s face it — these are big challenges compared to the manned aircraft we’ve managed very successfully for decades–not just in terms of use but in terms of product cycles can generally be measured in months, not years. 

So let me touch on how we’re charting a course toward integration of these new entrants — gathering the data, creating the framework, and building the infrastructure, and doing it all safely.

Our risk management approach, how we set regulations, the policies we promote — and most importantly — how we’ve gotten to the level of safety in traditional aviation is all about having access to data to properly understand and manage risk.  That is why the UAS Integration Pilot Program or IPP that Derek Kan talked about this morning is so important.

The IPP is allowing us to work with a variety of users and government organizations to safely test and validate advanced operations of drones. This will help us gain the data to develop the UAS regulations, policy and guidance through practical applications.   And as he noted, it has allowed us to grant the first air carrier certification to Alphabet Inc’s Wing Aviation for package deliveries in rural Blacksburg, Virginia.  We anticipate several other companies will gain this approval over the next few months. 

The FAA is focused on enabling an ever-expanding universe of UAS operations.  In order to allow for such operations to be conducted safely and securely, we’ve moved forward with a number of rulemakings for small UAS, including external markings, flights over people and at night, and safe and secure operational concepts and will soon be issuing a rule on remote ID.  Together, these rules will form our framework for advancing this new industry. 

We won’t just need regulatory framework, we will need an air traffic management system capable of managing manned and unmanned vehicles, where many of the latter will be highly autonomous.  As Derek Kan noted this morning we are working closely with NASA and industry to develop the concepts and tools we’ll need to accomplish this task.  What we learn from these increasingly complex demonstrations in higher-density urban areas will help inform the requirements for providers of these services going forward. 

How fast can we bring new innovations and technology into service? In commercial aviation, no new technology historically has premiered before its time where we have confidence it can be safely integrated in our airspace. And while I’ve been speaking of the future- we can’t forget the need to address the present challenges.

We’ve had two tragedies in the last year with the Boeing 737 MAX- and I want to extend the FAA’s heartfelt sympathy to the friends and families of those two accidents. Aviation is something that has broken down borders and opened opportunity across the world.  But it also means that we all share the sadness of each other’s losses. 

We continue to review any and all evidence from the ongoing accident investigations. We became an international leader in aviation by taking action based on data and addressing risk. And we’d be the first to admit that we have not always gotten it perfect.  That is why we are relentless advocates for transparency and continuous improvement.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons we have invited Director’s General from around the world to Dallas this month to provide a comprehensive overview of the steps that have been taken since the accidents. And let me be clear- the only timeline FAA has in returning the 737 MAX to service is simple- when we are confident that the issues arising from these accidents have been addressed and it is safe to operate.

When we look to the future, and the new users and new technologies coming into aviation- it’s a certainty that there will be differing opinions on whether any particularly technology or innovation will help or hurt – just like my sons’ impression of the lightning storm that night. 

The innovations are not going to slow down. That is a challenge for the FAA and other civil aviation regulators around the world.  The FAA is committed to finding a way forward that protects the public but allows innovation and opportunity to move forward, and we’ll work hand-in-hand with our international partners, including CAAC, to make sure we address together these constantly changing challenges and to learn from one another. 

Thank you so much for your kind attention.