Uber Flies High in FAA's Airspace

The Los Angeles Times reports that Uber, the ridesharing company, plans to extend its reach into the stratosphere by developing an “on-demand air transportation service.”  The plan appears to be that customers will use Uber’s surface transportation ride hailing system to hop a ride to a “vertiport” where an electrically powered aircraft will carry passengers to another vertiport at which they will be met by another phalanx of Uber drivers waiting to take otherwise stranded customers off the roofs of parking garages and into the traffic they supposedly avoided by using the proposed above ground transportation option.  

The purpose appears to be to allow customers to fly from one part of town to another.  Very creative, but shockingly absent all but one off-hand reference to the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), and the federal government’s total dominance over the airspace of the United States, 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a), including the design and construction of airports, which definition includes “vertiports.” 14 C.F.R. § 157.2. 
 
Whether recognized or not, Uber’s scheme faces a host of questions, and potential regulatory objections, that range from the way in which such episodic operations will merge with the arrival and departure paths of conventional aircraft, to the noise of even electric aircraft operating over existing residential neighbors and pedestrians using city streets.  While these are, to a large extent, the same issues posed by the operation of unmanned aircraft, or drones, they are even more immediate in this case, because the proposed electric aircraft are larger, potentially louder, and, perhaps most importantly, impinge on conventional aircraft regulatory areas long controlled by the FAA.

For example, once an aircraft leaves the ground, FAA takes control, see, e.g., 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(1) and (2), and coordinates with other aircraft using the same airspace in order to avoid collision.  The skies in large cities which might benefit from Uber’s scheme such as New York, are already filled with numerous aircraft on approach and departure from the various airports.  Since vertiports presumably won’t have their own air traffic control towers, it is difficult to imagine the way in which this new species of aircraft, with an on-demand operating schedule, rather than one defined in advance, will be integrated into the existing system.  

 
Similarly, vertiports are not conventional airports with runways, and are, therefore, much more in the nature of heliports, which the FAA also controls.  14 C.F.R. § 157.2.  No mentioned is made in the article, or the interview which is its focus, of the way in which Uber will interface with the FAA on the “safety and efficiency” of the facilities’ design.  
 
Finally,  no mention is made of the requirement that surrounding development be made consistent with airport operations, 14 C.F.R. Part 77, since the proposed facilities are airports in everything but name, the same requirement for limiting obstructions to air navigation, 14 C.F.R. § 77.13, could potentially be imposed on the development surrounding the “vertiports,” thereby severely constraining the height, and, thus, economic return of the surrounding developments, as well as interfering with a community’s overall development plan.  
 
In short, creative ideas are what make America great, but the FAA may bring Uber down to earth and make it realize that imagination cannot operate unfettered in the airspace of the United States.