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FAA proposes air taxi pilot licensing plans, sans actual air taxis

We're still a couple years out from eVTOLs picking you up for that red eye flight, and even that may be pushing it

The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed new rules for training pilots to fly electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, bringing the US one small step closer to a future of skies humming with flying taxis.

Because there's no comparable type of aircraft in use in the civilian world, the FAA said new rules are needed that ensure pilots who are licensed to fly eVTOLs are familiar with both powered-lift style flight of a helicopter and the fixed-wing flight of a traditional airplane.

Additionally, the FAA notes in its proposed rule, which is available for public review but won't be officially published until June 14, that several of the various eVTOL aircraft coming to the civilian market "have complex and unique design, flight and handling characteristics with varying degrees of automation," and thus unique licensing requirements.

As such, the proposed rule would require pilots to earn a powered-lift rating specific to each type of eVTOL aircraft they fly – eg, one for Delta Airlines air taxi partner Joby, and another to fly a Vertical Aerospace VX4 for American Airlines.

In order to accelerate the process of training pilots, the FAA wants to allow pilots working for eVTOL manufacturers to become licensed to serve as instructors who can train the first generation of pilots. Commercial pilots who are instrument rated will also be given the option to waive flight-time requirements in order to accelerate the training of new powered-lift pilots under the new rule. 

The eVTOL aircraft themselves would be beholden to "the same set of operating rules as traditional aircraft that are used in private and commercial flights and air tours," the FAA said, adding that the proposed rule would also conform to international requirements, meaning eVTOL certified pilots would be allowed to fly air taxis in other countries too.

"These proposed rules of the sky will safely usher in this new era of aviation and provide the certainty the industry needs to develop," said David Boulter, the FAA's acting associate administrator for aviation safety.

I've got a driver, and that's a start

In its proposed rule, the FAA said it sees air taxis being used to transport crew and materials to offshore oil rigs, serving as an air ambulance or simply being an alternative to a ground-bound taxi in a dense urban environment.

Of course, all of that would require a company to actually bring a powered-lift air taxi to market, which has yet to happen.

Joby Aviation, partnered with Delta Airlines to eventually fly passengers to and from airports and local destinations, has also been working with the Department of Defense on its flying taxi, but has yet to be fully certified for commercial passenger flights in the US. Joby said in February it believed it was the first eVTOL manufacturer in the US to reach the second stage of FAA certification and hoped to launch commercial passenger services in 2025. 

Boeing, for its part, wants to skip the pilots and go right to driverless flying taxis with the ridiculously short-term goal of doing so by 2030, while in China one decidedly drone-like 2-seat eVTOL vehicle was actually certified for flight in January.

The FAA, meanwhile, is moving slowly because, it says, this next generation of aircraft will require a high degree of public confidence to ensure the entire experiment doesn't, ahem, crash and burn.

"​​As with all aspects of aviation that came before, this new era will be an evolution, where advancement to the next step will be based on safety. As safety regulators, it is the job of the FAA and its counterparts around the world to help ensure that innovation doesn't come at the expense of safety," said FAA acting administrator Billy Nolen. ®

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