Gridlock in the Sky (excerpt)
(Source: Washington Post; published Dec. 12, 2018)
By Chris Davenport, John Muyskens, Youjin Shin and Monica Ulmanu
The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket this year was a triumph of engineering and another celebrated coup for Elon Musk’s space company.

The airline industry says it was also a headache.

To accommodate the launch, and the possibility that the rocket could explode, the Federal Aviation Administration had to shut down a large swath of airspace for more than three hours, stretching from the Florida coast about 1,300 miles east over the Atlantic. That meant flights up and down the busy Eastern Seaboard had to go around the safety zone, causing delays and forcing planes to burn additional fuel.

Even though the rocket was out of the airspace in a mere 90 seconds before its three boosters flew back to Earth some eight minutes later, the “impact on the traveling public was real,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, which advocates for the industry.

As a growing number of commercial rocket companies ultimately plan to fly on a weekly basis, and from more places, airlines are concerned that they will significantly affect the already congested airspace, which handles more than 15 million airline flights annually.

Rockets have been blasting off into space since the dawn of the Space Age more than 60 years ago. But the launches have been relatively rare events — over its 30-year life span, the space shuttle took off just 135 times, an average of less than five times a year. So, the impacts have been limited — “small in comparison to other constraints in the system because there are so few of them,” according to Gregory Martin, a spokesman for the FAA.

Still, he said, a single launch “can affect hundreds of flights.”

Now, a robust commercial space industry is growing fast, and it intends to fly much more frequently, forcing more airspace restrictions. Already, those closures “have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable,” the Air Line Pilots Association wrote in congressional testimony this year.

More than 7 million airline flights have been affected this year by weather, airspace congestion and other problems, forcing them to fly an additional 155 million miles, according to the FAA. But of those flights, only 1,400 were affected by spacecraft, which caused the airlines to fly an additional 70,000 miles. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Washington Post website.


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