Supersonic, hypersonic, and potential suborbital flights are among the considerations in a newly-proposed roadmap to prepare for a future regulatory framework on higher-airspace air transport operations in Europe.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency says such operations – above 55,000-66,000ft – “do not yet exist on a large scale” on the continent.

“Only one application for certification of [a higher-airspace operations] aircraft is pending at EASA for the time being and it is unlikely that multiple civil or commercial operations of [such] aircraft, when certified, will take place in the EU airspace in the immediate future,” it states in the proposal document.

But it says a “new category” of airspace users could emerge “in the near future”, pointing out the developments relating to air-launched vehicles, high-altitude pseudo-satellites, and other craft.

“Future operations in the higher airspace will be manned or unmanned and may pose safety risks when transiting through the current air operations in the airspace below,” it states.

Overture-c-Boom Supersonic

Source: Boom Supersonic

Higher-airspace operations could cover future supersonic, hypersonic and suborbital craft

The development timeline is uncertain, says EASA, and the diversity of operations, vehicle categories, manoeuvrability and energies, and flight phases is likely to be broad – and bring specific safety, security and environmental risks.

“Bringing these different needs together and finding a balanced set of rules, respecting every current and potential future operation use-case, could be difficult and take time,” it adds. “But ensuring a regulatory level-playing field addressing all categories of [higher-airspace] users appears necessary.”

Given the uncertainty over industrial development, EASA believes creating a full regulatory framework is not immediately practical, and is recommending a two- or three-year preparatory phase – running from 2023 – to understand the needs and constraints of higher-airspace operations.

This preparatory phase would cover six categories of action, such as offering support to industrial developments, building regulatory awareness and know-how, and carrying out scientific studies to improve the data which would drive regulatory choices.

Studies would be required to assess the impact of weather phenomena – including space weather – the performance and limits of current communication, navigation and surveillance capabilities, and the impact of higher-airspace operations on crew and passengers.

EASA says the preparatory roadmap will also encompass regulatory analysis of hybrid higher-airspace operations, to determine whether some should be governed by air law.

It will also seek to take advantage of other programmes and policies to support higher-airspace operations development, co-ordinating closely with defence interests, and extending this co-operation cross-border to achieve a harmonised environment and as much global interoperability as possible.