Op-ed: The risk of risk aversion at the Federal Aviation Administration

We are on the cusp of the next revolution in aviation, and the next generation of technologies is poised to radically reshape America’s airspace. This future, however, is not guaranteed. Our airspace was once an open platform where innovators could develop world-changing technology by engaging in what my colleague Adam Thierer calls “permissionless innovation.” Today, it is very much a closed platform subject to a bureaucracy that often fails to consider what society gains when we let bold innovators take reasonable chances.

Flying cars, drones, and supersonic jets make headlines, but in reality the future of flight is determined almost exclusively by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s willingness to accept change. This should be both concerning and cause for hope. While a culture of fear seems to permeate the FAA, Congress can reorient the agency to embrace the future and all of the benefits it has to offer.

{mosads}A report released earlier this year from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that “‘Fear of making a mistake’ drives a risk culture at the FAA that is too often overly conservative, particularly with regard to [drone] technologies, which do not pose a direct threat to human life.”

How did things get this way? The FAA is primarily a safety agency, giving it an incentive to lose focus on the broader picture. As Justice Stephen Breyer has explained, an agency like the FAA can suffer from tunnel vision: focusing so zealously on a single goal (i.e., safety) that it loses sight of how its regulations fit in the larger cost-benefit context.

More importantly, the National Academies’ report notes that “FAA risk avoidance behavior is often rewarded, even when it is excessively risk averse, and rewarded behavior is repeated behavior.” It has every reason to see the world through tunnel vision.

This behavior has not been limited to drones. A number of other aspects of civil aviation innovation have faced the FAA’s risk-averse approach. The FAA banned supersonic flight in 1973 and has yet to reevaluate its position in the 45 years since. The FAA shut down flight-sharing platforms in 2014, and it shows no sign of reconsidering this decision.

There is a bright side to this, however. Unlike many other industries, in which the regulatory thicket spans a number of agencies and levels of government, almost every aspect of aviation is exclusively regulated by the FAA. That means fixing it is simply a matter of reorienting the agency.

Policymakers are taking steps toward doing just that, and Congress has the opportunity to reclaim our airspace for permissionless innovation. Both the Lee-Gardner Amendment and the Aviation Empowerment Act would take the proactive step of requiring the FAA to accept the reality that both supersonic flight and flight-sharing are part of the our future.

Ignoring the future doesn’t stop it. The FAA’s failure to embrace this reality is why SwitzerlandJapanFranceGermany, and the United Kingdom are all beginning to outpace the United States in the coming aviation revolution. Only by reestablishing the importance of experimentation and innovation can the home of the Wright Brothers and the Apollo program once again catch up with the rest of the world.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.