What Space Coast rocket launches mean for commercial airline flights

Airspace restrictions off Space Coast cost airlines time, money

By Mike DeForest - Investigative Reporter

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - With two rockets scheduled to lift off from the Space Coast this week, airspace around Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station could be restricted for more than six hours.

Those airspace restrictions may cause hundreds of commercial and private aircraft flights to be delayed as they divert around the launch area, Federal Aviation Administration data suggests.

As the commercial space industry pushes for as many as 48 launches per year from the Space Coast, aviation experts predict that airline delays will continue to grow.

Minutes before a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center Tuesday, the FAA implemented so-called Temporary Flight Restrictions that extended about 30 miles off the Brevard County coast.

Depending on the type of rocket, payload and destination, the airspace restrictions can extend hundreds of additional miles offshore.

When a Telsa automobile and a mannequin nicknamed Starman were launched into space aboard a test flight of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018, a roughly 1,300 mile-long path across the Atlantic Ocean was closed to aircraft for more than three hours the Washington Post reported.

That single rocket launched caused 563 airline flights to be delayed, including 121 flights in and out of Orlando International Airport, according to a report published by the Air Line Pilots Association International.

With each aircraft experiencing an average delay of about eight minutes, all of the aircraft effected by the rocket launch spent an additional 77 hours in the air and on the ground.

"These restrictions have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable," the pilot union stated in its paper to Congress.

Research conducted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University suggested that the airline industry could lose millions of dollars a year diverting around rocket launches.

"Based on the current simulation scenarios, by 2027, extra fuel costs could rise to $200,000 per launch, and by 2037, the price tag to airlines could be a whopping $300,000," said Rodrigo Firmo, a graduate research assistant.

In hopes of reducing the size of the restricted airspace during rocket launches and to re-open it to aircraft more quickly, the FAA is developing technology called the Space Data Integrator.

Air traffic systems that monitor commercial, private and government aircraft cannot currently track spacecraft passing through the airspace, according to the FAA.

"(The Space Data Integrator) will receive and distribute launch and reentry data in a manner that will allow it to integrate with air traffic control systems ... creating a common operating picture designed to promote air travel safety," the agency said.

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