Aviation is changing rapidly, and this advancement requires a melding of both the new and the old aviation best practices. Historically, there are many lessons to learn from the evolution of the aviation industry, from the first flight to present. Today, as we consider the impact of drones, self-driving vehicles, supersonic flight, space shuttles and more, the next generation of aviation leaders can learn from veterans of the industry. One of the Air Traffic Control Association’s (ATCA) primary missions is to foster this connection.
The New Airspace recently had the opportunity to talk with Charlie Keegan, chairman of the board of directors for ATCA, about the changing trends and future of the airspace. Keegan has spent his career in aviation, working his way up from air traffic controller to vice president with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before moving to the private sector where he focused on air traffic control technologies. Today, Keegan owns an aviation-focused management consulting firm as well as serving on the ATCA board.
This year, at both the ATCA World ATM Congress and the ATCA Tech Symposium, the focus was on new trends and technologies in the industry. We asked Keegan to discuss why these types of events are so important to promoting the future of the airspace and fostering rising aviation professionals through networking and education. Read on to learn more:
The New Airspace: Tell us a little about yourself and what you are doing in your current role.
Charlie Keegan: I currently own a small aviation-focused management consulting firm here in Washington D.C. I’m also the chairman of the board for the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), and I’ve been a member and participant of that organization for a very long time. Our focus is to support and advance the science of air traffic control. We really try to support the men, women and technology that make that all happen.
The New Airspace: What have been some priorities in your role as chairman of the ATCA board?
Keegan: ATCA is an individual membership organization. We have an incredibly diverse voice and are well-versed in questioning the community about what’s going on in the future of aviation and air traffic control. We see our role fundamentally as facilitator to ensure that the dialogue occurs and that all questions and viewpoints are exposed to allow the aviation system as a whole to move forward.
One of our main priorities is focused on ensuring the next generation of young aviation professionals is prepared to engage in what has been a very steady, highly regulated environment.
Today, we have rules, processes and procedures to meet regulations, yet significant innovation is occurring at the same time. As the younger generation of aviation professionals emerges, we need to pass down the lessons we’ve learned, so that they don’t repeat our mistakes when they push to innovate and embrace the future of aviation. This is a critical component to our mission, and ATCA continues to facilitate networking opportunities among senior and emerging leaders. We also run a highly active scholarship fund for those who are interested in our field to boost the growth of the younger generation of aviation professionals.In addition to fostering professional growth, we also support the evolution of the technical aspects of air traffic control. As new innovation occurs, we realize that these new ‘round pegs’ will not fit into the traditional ‘square holes’ we have created. So, as an organization, we are working through processes to create a better and more complete understanding of how regulations can fit these new innovations. At the same time, we need to consider both the technical implications and the social implications of what is safe and what is acceptable.
We work to have a comprehensive understanding of what the new airspace will look like. Already, we see companies like Uber to fly people around in autonomous taxis combined with the growth of commercial space launches. And, of course, there already are a million drones registered in the United States. This is a huge new influx that is very different than manned aircraft and must have different regulations. How do we manage all of these aircrafts in the sky? Alongside those ‘futuristic’ considerations, we also must consider how we handle more airplanes in bad weather, for example? Those are standard things that need to be discussed as we move forward.
The New Airspace: What do you think the airspace could look like in five to 10 years?
Keegan: I look out the window a lot. I live near Washington National airport, and as I look out the window, my first thought is there is plenty of room for everybody. When you take the size of our country and shrink it down to fit on a TV screen, everything gets jammed. But, from a physical footprint, there’s plenty of space. As we consider the innovation that is happening in the sky, I don’t think the issue is congestion and how things come closer when flying; I think the real issue is how much we are going to tolerate as a society. We believe the skies will be blackened by drone delivery, but I’m not so sure. Even with the exponential growth of drones, we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg about what we’re willing to tolerate.
That said, I think there’s plenty of space, and we should use it. And that’ll be the challenge. How do you manage society through that process?
The New Airspace: Do you have any advice for the next group of aviation professionals coming up through the industry?
Keegan: My advice is to know where we are and to be a student of history. As we continue to evolve, learn from this history and continue to be incredibly thoughtful.