According to a FAA statement reported by multiple media outlets last week, the FAA has decided to modify its regulatory approach and certify electric vertical take-off and landing (“eVTOL”) aircraft as a “special class” aircraft using the existing “powered-lift” aircraft category.  As discussed previously, the FAA has been deciding between two approaches to the type certification of eVTOLs—either (a) type certification using airworthiness standards in 14 C.F.R. Part 23 for “Normal Category Airplanes,” which normally fly only horizontally, combined with special conditions for eVTOLs (e.g., vertical flight), or (b) certification under the FAA’s aircraft certification procedures for “special classes” of aircraft in 14 C.FR. § 21.17 (b) (“Special Class Framework”), whereby airworthiness standards derived from other FAA regulations are incorporated as appropriate.  The ultimate direction will have significant implications for both eVTOLs’ route to market and future operational requirements (e.g., pilot requirements, infrastructure, etc.).

In light of the industry’s expectation that Normal Category Airplane standards would serve as the foundation for eVTOL certification, the FAA stated that its “process for certifying the aircraft themselves remains unchanged.  All the development work done by current applicants remains valid and the changes in our regulatory approach should not delay their projects.”  The FAA also confirmed the Special Class Framework allows for the incorporation of airworthiness standards from other FAA regulations, including those applicable to Normal Category Airplanes.

The FAA stated that the change to its regulatory approach was driven in part by a need for a “predictable framework…to train and certify the pilots who will operate these novel aircraft” and for flexibility in setting operational requirements to “eliminate the need for special conditions and exemptions.”

Prior to the recent reports, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) released a report entitled “Transforming Aviation: Stakeholders Identified Issues to Address for Advanced Air Mobility,” noting stakeholders’ concerns over a lack of clear certification standards and development of such standards in the next one to five years.  This is in addition to a DOT Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) audit already underway to review the FAA’s progress in establishing the basis for certification of Urban Air Mobility aircraft such as eVTOLs, including ensuring the safety of novel features and providing guidance to applicants.

The FAA will need to provide further clarity on the details of the certification process for eVTOLs, including which specific airworthiness standards the FAA will incorporate under the Special Class Framework.  We will continue to monitor and provide updates as developments arise.