A sharp rise in launches across Florida’s Space Coast has put significant strain on Air Traffic Control centers across the Sunshine State, leading to lengthy delays and scheduling issues as airports struggle to fit launch dates around busy seasons.
Speaking to Vox, John Tiliacos, executive vice president of finance and procurement at Tampa International Airport, noted,
“They close significant airspace on the east coast before and during and after a launch. That traffic has to go somewhere. It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, so you’re further congesting an already constrained airspace on the west coast of Florida.”
With SpaceX’s plans to launch at least 60 missions this year, three this week alone, Florida’s airspace is likely to slow down further. 2018’s Falcon Heavy launch, which famously put CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla into orbit, impacted 563 flights, leading to a combined extra 35,000 miles traveled to avoid the no-fly zone that stretched 1,300 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
If Falcon Heavy’s precedent is anything to follow, researchers at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University estimate that each space launch could cost airlines at least $200,000 by 2027.
SpaceX has completed 17 launches this year, with another three planned for this week. Photo: Getty Images
Rerouting around a no-fly zone is not the only issue – airports are given details at least two weeks in advance, however, rogue private aviators may miss the message. In June of last year, SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch was called off following a private aircraft entering what Musk referred to as an “unreasonably gigantic” no-fly zone.
Speaking at the time, Musk derided the FAA’s broken regulatory structure. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities,” he tweeted, adding that “under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
In the past year, the FAA has made several improvements, including implementing its Space Data Integrator, which has reduced the duration of airspace closures to just half an hour in some instances; however, the increase in the frequency of launches is still causing issues.
While current delays are centered around Florida’s coastline, recently approved spaceport sites could cause issues across the United States.
Although launch sites are typically located in sparsely populated areas to minimize potential problems, teething issues as new facilities pop up can lead to conflict and confusion with local ATC as they adapt to changes. A notable example is Blue Origin’s early suborbital launches out of Corn Ranch in West Texas, which caused airspace issues as the company learned to communicate with ATC.
Concerns have been raised over the Colorado Air and Space Port, located just six miles from Denver International Airport. Launches are yet to happen, though a planned collaboration between the spaceport and Dawn Aerospace could lead to problems at the third-busiest airport in the world.
2018’s Falcon Heavy launch required a no-fly zone that stretched 1,300 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, causing significant delays on Florida’s east coast. Photo: Getty Images
Could an increase in space-related delays be the price we pay for a better aviation experience? This afternoon’s SpaceX launch is set to add another 53 Starlink satellites into orbit, increasing the company’s constellation network, which currently provides WiFi coverage to 250,000 customers, including Hawaiian Airlines, which plans to implement Starlink onto its long-haul services from 2023.
SpaceX is not alone, with several other companies, including ViaSat and Anuvu (formerly Global Eagle), operating extensive satellite networks that provide WiFi coverage for thousands of aircraft, relying on upcoming launches to improve their offerings even further.
From a business perspective, the benefits of an improved in-flight service seem to outweigh the cons of being stuck on the tarmac for an extra hour.
Southwest Airlines, one of the carriers experiencing significant operational challenges due to space launches in Florida, seems to lean that way, with airline CEO Robert Jordan noting in a recent Aviation Week webinar that implementing reliable high-speed WiFi was the number one priority in improving the customer experience and keeping airlines competitive post-pandemic.
Until humanity reaches the final frontier of both good WiFi and timely takeoffs, the FAA will be beefing up staff across its Florida ATC centers to reduce further delays this summer.
Have you been on a flight that was delayed by a space launch? Let us know in the comments.
White Tail Aircraft: A Brief Guide
About The Author