The risk of risk aversion at the Federal Aviation Administration

We are on the cusp of the next revolution in aviation, and the next generation of technologies is poised to radically reshape America’s airspace. This future, however, is not guaranteed. Our airspace was once an open platform where innovators could develop world-changing technology by engaging in what my colleague Adam Thierer calls “permissionless innovation.” Today, it is very much a closed platform subject to a bureaucracy that often fails to consider what society gains when we let bold innovators take reasonable chances.

Flying cars, drones, and supersonic jets make headlines, but in reality the future of flight is determined almost exclusively by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s willingness to accept change. This should be both concerning and cause for hope. While a culture of fear seems to permeate the FAA, Congress can reorient the agency to embrace the future and all of the benefits it has to offer.

report released earlier this year from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that “‘Fear of making a mistake’ drives a risk culture at the FAA that is too often overly conservative, particularly with regard to [drone] technologies, which do not pose a direct threat to human life.”

How did things get this way? The FAA is primarily a safety agency, giving it an incentive to lose focus on the broader picture. As Justice Stephen Breyer has explained, an agency like the FAA can suffer from tunnel vision: focusing so zealously on a single goal (i.e., safety) that it loses sight of how its regulations fit in the larger cost-benefit context.

More importantly, the National Academies’ report notes that “FAA risk avoidance behavior is often rewarded, even when it is excessively risk averse, and rewarded behavior is repeated behavior.” It has every reason to see the world through tunnel vision.