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FAA Leadership Changes Set the Scene For Drone Integration in 2019

BY Isabella Lee
6 December 2018

There’s been a shuffle among FAA leadership positions in preparation to move forward with drone-related provisions established by the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act.

Two executive-level moves include the appointment of a new Director for Aircraft Certification and a new Director of UAS Integration.


Earl Lawrence was internally promoted to the Agency’s Executive Director for Aircraft Certification. He previously held the role of Executive Director for the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office.

Jay Merkle has been appointed to fill Lawrence’s previous position as Head of UAS Integration. Prior to taking on this role, Merkle served as the Deputy Vice President for the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s Program Management Office.

As longstanding FAA advocates for safety, Earl Lawrence and Jay Merkle are the right selections at a critical time for emerging aviation technologies. Their extensive experience will help ensure a safe transition as these new technologies mature and enter our country’s national airspace.

—Dan Elwell, FAA Acting Administrator

Lawrence and Merkle’s appointments are effective Dec. 9, and both executives will report to FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami.

The Impact of Changes in Executive Leadership at the FAA

Lawrence and Merkle will be heading up two very important departments, which will be especially active in 2019 as the agency works on implementing the drone-related provisions of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act.

Earl Lawrence (left) and Jay Merkle (right).

The Aircraft Certification Service, which will be headed by Lawrence, is the second largest Aviation Safety Organization, employing more than 1,300 people. The department is responsible for design and manufacturing approvals, along with the continued operational safety of all aviation products in the United States. Efforts to regulate manufacturing standards for UAS technology have become increasingly popular in the past year, with voluntary standards from ASTM International and ISO that could be used to regulate certain aspects of how drone technology is made.

The UAS Integration Office, which will be headed by Merkle, coordinates the development of regulations, policies, programs, and procedures to enable the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. Merkle is likely more than up to the task, thanks to his previous experience working on UAS policy, including the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) initiative. Elwell has described Merkle as an “architect” of the program and believes his experience will “help ensure a safe transition” as drones become fully integrated aircraft in the U.S. airspace.

Both Merkle and Lawrence will have influence over how the provisions of the FAA Reauthorization Act are implemented. For example, their decisions will either inhibit or enhance the current cooperation between federal, state, and local governments to integrate UAS into the airspace. Some level of co-decision making will be essential in establishing an unmanned traffic management system (UTM), as required by the Act.

Who Will Become the Next FAA Administrator?

Another anticipated change in leadership is the appointment of a new FAA Administrator—the top spot at the FAA. Many expected that current Acting Administrator Dan Elwell would be permanently appointed to the position. However, Elwell has reportedly withdrawn from the contention dues to a lack of consensus on his nomination.

The current prediction for who will fill the role is former Delta Executive, Steve Dickson, according to the Wall Street Journal. Dickson served as the Senior VP of Global Flight Operations at Delta Air Lines until recently retiring after 27-years with the company, and he is considered a top choice for the position.

There was some talk of President Trump’s pilot, John Dunkin, for the role, but it was of no significance since lawmakers withheld support for the idea. Meanwhile, many UAS folks are still starry-eyed over the last full-term FAA Administrator, Micheal Huerta. During his term, the Agency experienced the safest period in airline history, with no fatalities on U.S. regulated passenger carriers. Huerta also made strides to promote the commercial UAS industry, establishing the first set of rules for commercial drone operation (called Part 107) during his term.

When the new FAA Administrator is elected, he or she will serve a five-year term. The position is a big one to fill. The appointee will be responsible for the largest aerospace system in the world—a system that operates more than 50,000 flights per day, utilizes a $16.4 billion-dollar budget, and has over 47,000 employees. The person ultimately appointed will play a significant role in the future scale and success of the UAS industry.

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