How SpaceX and Elon Musk Could Delay Your Next Flight

How SpaceX and Elon Musk Could Delay Your Next Flight

You can usually blame an airline flight delay on a handful of common suspects like bad weather, mechanical issues, and lane traffic. But thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, there is now a surprising new source of disruption to air travel: rocket launches.

In recent weeks, flights in and out of Florida have seen a sharp increase in delays. Palm Beach International Airport recorded more than 100 delays or cancellations on April 15 alone. (Some of this can be attributed to an increase in private and charter flights.) Things are even worse at Jacksonville International Airport, where there were nearly 9,000 flight delays in March. Last week, federal regulators met to discuss these disruptions, which reflect many of the current challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, rising jet fuel costs, the Covid-19 pandemic and a shortage of airline workers. But in Florida, an increasing number of space launches — particularly those in the Cape Canaveral area — are also making flight schedules more complicated.

“They close off significant airspace on the east coast before, during and after a launch. That traffic has to go somewhere,” John Tiliacos, Tampa International Airport’s executive vice president of finance and purchasing, told Recode. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, so you’re further congesting an already restricted airspace on Florida’s west coast.”

While these delays are now concentrated in Florida, this problem could get much worse, especially as the number of spaceflights increases and new launch facilities, or spaceports, open in other parts of the country. The situation is also a sign that the arrival of the second space age could have an unexpected and even extremely inconvenient impact on everyday life.

The spacecraft problem is relatively simple: Air traffic controllers currently have to land or redirect flights during launches. To break through the atmosphere and reach outer space, rockets must first travel through airspace monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control centers and air navigation across the country. While these rockets typically spend only a few minutes in this airspace, they can create debris such as worn-out pieces of rocket hardware because they are designed to release their payloads in various stages or because the mission has failed. Reusable boosters used by some spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, also re-enter this airspace.

To ensure that planes are not hit by this debris, the FAA typically prevents flights from traveling within a rectangle-shaped block of sky that can extend from 40 to several hundred kilometers in length, depending on the type of launch. There is typically about two weeks notice before each launch, and during that time air traffic controllers can develop alternative arrangements for flights scheduled that day. While a launch is taking place, aviation officials track the vehicle’s entry into space and await word from experts who analyze the trajectory of the debris created by the launch in real time. If there is debris, air traffic controllers wait for it to fall back to Earth, which typically takes 30 to 50 minutes. When this happens, scheduled flights can return to their normal flight paths.

A single space launch can disrupt hundreds of flights. For example, a 2018 launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy — the same flight that took Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space — impacted 563 flights, created 4,645 total minutes of delays and forced planes to fly an additional 34,841 nautical miles, according to data from the FAA. That extra mileage adds up quickly, especially when you consider the extra fuel and carbon emissions involved. Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida estimate that a single space launch could cost airlines up to $200,000 in extra fuel by 2027 and up to $300,000 in extra fuel in the decade to come.

The FAA insists it is making improvements. Last year, the agency began using a new tool, Space Data Integrator, which more directly shares data about spacecraft during launches and allows the agency to reopen airspace more quickly. The FAA also says it has successfully reduced the duration of launch-related airspace closures from about four to just over two hours. In some cases, the agency managed to reduce this time to just 30 minutes.

“An ultimate goal of the FAA’s efforts is to reduce delays, route deviations, fuel burn and emissions from commercial airlines and other users of the National Air System as the frequency of commercial space operations increases,” the agency said in a statement.

A graph depicting the increasing number of licensed rocket launches in the US.

faa.gov

And the frequency of releases is increasing. There were 54 licensed space launches overseen by the FAA last year, but the agency believes that number could grow in 2022 thanks to increased space tourism, growing demand for internet satellites and upcoming space exploration missions. Such launches may also become more common in other parts of the country as new spaceports, which are usually built at or near existing airports, ramp up operations. The FAA has licensed more than a dozen spaceport locations across the United States, including Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic launched its first flight last summer, as well as the Colorado Air and Space Port, a transportation facility. space located just six miles from Denver International Airport.

The FAA’s role in the rise of the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. In addition to certifying and licensing launches, the FAA’s responsibilities also include studying the environmental impact of space travel and overseeing new spaceports. The agency will also have to monitor the safety of space passengers. This is on top of all the other new types of flying vehicles the FAA will also have to keep an eye on, such as drones, flying air taxis, supersonic jets and even, possibly, space balloons.

“Where things are contested is more about: How do all these different types of vehicles fit into the system that the FAA is responsible for?” Ian Petchenik, who directs communications for the Flightradar24 aircraft flight tracking service, told Recode. “Things are going to get a lot more complicated, and having a way of figuring out who has priority, how much space they need and what the safety margins are, I think, is a much bigger long-term issue.”

While we are still in the early days of the commercial space industry, some have already expressed concern that the agency is not heading in the right direction. The Air Line Pilots Association warned in 2019 that the FAA’s approach could become a “prohibitively expensive method of supporting space operations” and urged the agency to continue reducing the duration of airspace shutdowns during space launches. At least one member of Congress, Representative Peter DeFazio, is already concerned that the FAA is prioritizing commercial spaceflight launches over traditional air travel, which serves significantly more people.

In addition to air flight delays, the burgeoning space travel business has already influenced everything from the reality shows we can watch and the types of jobs we can get to international politics and – because of the industry’s potentially huge carbon footprint – the threat of climate change. Now it looks like the commercial space industry may also influence the timing of your next trip to Disney World.

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