Federal Aviation Administration

The U.S. government organization primarily responsible for overseeing aviation safety, air traffic control and navigation, federal funding for airport and airway facilities, and civil aviation security.

Functions and Structure

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has three main areas of responsibility: air traffic control and navigation; civil aviation safety regulation, certification of airlines and aircraft, and licensing of pilots, mechanics, and other aviation personnel; and civil (as opposed to criminal) aviation security regulation and enforcement to safeguard airports, airplanes, and personnel and passengers from terrorism and other criminal threats to aviation. To accomplish these functions, the FAA maintains a headquarters in Washington, D.C., nine regional offices, and hundreds of other offices in the United States and worldwide. The FAA has two major research centers in Oklahoma and New Jersey.

The FAA employs almost 50,000 employees, approximately 35,500 of whom perform air traffic services. The job of regulating, inspecting, and licensing airlines, aircraft, pilots, and mechanics is performed by a regulation and certification workforce numbering approximately 6,000. More than 1,000 personnel work in the area of civil aviation security, and the remaining personnel work predominantly in administration, in research, or even in the overseeing the safety of commercial space launches to put satellites into orbit for telecommunications companies or other businesses.

The FAA is headed by an administrator who serves a five-year term under the U.S. secretary of transportation. A deputy administrator and several associate and assistant administrators oversee the different areas of FAA responsibility.

Although the size of the FAA workforce may seem extraordinary, it is appropriate to the role of aviation in the United States. Each year, air traffic controllers must handle approximately forty-five million flights, and FAA airport towers log fifty million operations. As of 2000, there were 19,281 airports in the United States, 3,953 of which were public-use airports with paved runways. There were 651 FAA-certificated airports in the United States, serving air carrier operations with aircraft seating more than thirty passengers. As of December 31, 2000, there were 635,472 active U.S. pilot certificates: Whether they were students in small propeller planes or airline captains commanding jetliners carrying hundreds of passengers, more than one-half million people held licenses permitting them to fly.

The FAA expends eleven billion dollars yearly in the performance of its functions. Much of that total is paid by the traveling public through excise taxes added to the price of airline tickets. These taxes, totaling almost twelve billion dollars annually, go into a national aviation trust fund to pay for improvements to airports and airways.


Soon after Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the marquis François d’Arlandes completed the first untethered balloon flight on November 21, 1783, the first effort at aviation regulation was made. In April, 1784, a French police ordinance required permits for balloon flights over Paris.

Early laws were hardly conducive to aviation. Roman law proclaimed that whoever owned land also owned the sky above that land. Early property law provided that if one owned the land on the surface, then one owned it to the center of the earth and to the heights of the sky. This legal concept did not prove especially troubling until air travel became possible.

At the time of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s success on December 17, 1903, the prevailing legal concepts made the dominion of the skies somewhat like that of the ocean: Both were considered to belong to all people but not to any one person. By the end of the World War I, that theory had been replaced by the realization that a nation’s skies were the key not only to its defense but also to its prosperity. Thus, each nation’s skies became protected airspace. Treaties were drafted to keep nations’ aircraft from entering other nations’ airspace and to regulate the economics and safety of international aviation.

Regulatory Framework

In 1919, the world powers met in Paris to devise a plan for the implementation of an international regulatory framework to carry out civil aviation in a peaceful, safe, and efficient manner. The sovereignty of each nation’s airspace was recognized, and the group proposed minimum standards for certification and safety regulation as well as general rules for air traffic control. Each nation would be required to adopt regulations to certify its airlines, aircraft, and pilots and to oversee the safety of its operations. Although the United States sent representatives to attend the Paris conference, it did not adopt the convention’s agreements.

The United States would become a signatory to later air commerce and navigation treaties, and eventually the international oversight of aviation would be governed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a part of the United Nations. To this day, the international regulatory plan depends on each nation having aviation safety laws and a government agency to enforce them. Although the FAA would eventually fulfill that role for the United States, it was still decades in the making.

The U.S. Air Mail Service

The U.S. Post Office was the beneficiary of the first U.S. aviation regulation. In 1920, after numerous airmail accidents, the head of the U.S. Air Mail Service set about to improve the situation. Pilots were required to complete 500 hours of flight training, pass an examination, and undergo a physical to establish medical fitness. Orville Wright assisted the effort to qualify and license the nation’s pilots, personally signing some of the earliest U.S. pilot’s licenses.

Air mail was privatized with the Air Mail Act of 1925, known as the Kelly Act. The routes were put up for bid, and wealthy American industrialists, such as Henry Ford, William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Marshall Field, garnered the first contracts.

On May 20, 1926, the Air Commerce Act was passed at the urging of the aviation industry, after the aviation industrialists realized aviation could not reach its significant commercial potential without the federal government providing safety regulation. It is unsurprising, then, that the job of aviation safety was given to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The secretary of commerce was charged with promoting air commerce, enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots and planes, certificating aircraft, establishing airways, maintaining aids to air navigation, and generally working to improve aviation’s dismal safety record. With that, the seeds of the future FAA were planted, and there was much to be done. There were only 6,000 passengers willing to brave the airlines in 1926.

Forerunners of the FAA

By 1933, the nation’s system of 18,000 miles of airways with 1,500 beacon towers and 263 landing fields was finished. Aerial navigation was very much a ground-based enterprise, with a cross-country system of ground beacons, small towers with a flashing rotating light and two course lights. In addition, ninety radio navigation stations had been built to provide aural and visual guidance to pilots. In 1930, the first radio-equipped air traffic control tower was built in Cleveland, Ohio, with twenty more to follow by 1935. In 1935, the cities of Chicago and Newark set up air traffic control systems to control their flights. The Bureau of Air Commerce was formed in 1934 within the Department of Commerce, and, two years later, it took over the responsibility of air traffic control.

By the 1930’s, the airlines, in the throes of destructive price-cutting competition spurred by mail-contract bidding, were themselves clamoring for federal regulation. The airlines wanted to upgrade their fleets with the new, sleek, metal marvels of the aviation world: the Douglas DC-3 aircraft. To afford these airplanes, the airlines needed to be spared from cutthroat price wars. The airlines’ solution was federal economic regulation. By having the federal government regulate not only air traffic control, safety, and certification, but also airline profits, they would be protected from huge losses caused by destructive competition, and they could afford to buy the marvelous new DC-3’s.

Thus, in 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act created the Civil Aeronautics Authority to regulate safety and economics. In 1940, the authority was split into the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which had the powers of safety regulation, accident investigation, and economic regulation and also established airline fares and routes, and the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which was responsible for air traffic control, pilot and aircraft certification, safety enforcement, and airway development. The airline plan worked. Americans loved the DC-3, which remains the most successful transport plane ever. Almost 11,000 were built in the United States and at least as many were manufactured overseas. By 1941, there were three million U.S. airline passengers, who looked to the U.S. government to protect their safety.

During World War II, both military and civil aviation changed dramatically. Newly developed radar technology was applied to air traffic control. In 1944 alone, the United States produced 96,318 airplanes. Aviation was credited by many historians with winning the war.

During the Cold War, the federal government provided money for airports and instrument landing systems. Equipment, such as pressurized airplanes, airborne weather radar, and autopilots, were dramatically improved, and passenger comforts were increased. By 1956, U.S. airline passengers outnumbered rail passengers, a trend that was never reversed.

However, during this time, several tragedies shook the confidence of the flying public. The world’s first jet commercial airliner, the British De Havilland Comet commenced passenger jet service in May, 1952, but its success was short lived. Of the nine Comets in commercial passenger service, three seemingly came apart in midflight. In 1956, a United Air Lines flight collided in midair above the Grand Canyon with a Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight, killing 128. After it was discovered that an air traffic controller had seen the planes’ collision course on his radar and had failed to warn the pilots, the reputation of the CAA was tarnished. After two more U.S. midair collisions, between U.S. Air Force planes and civilian airliners, it was recognized that changes were required.

Federal Aviation Agency

In 1958, the new, independent Federal Aviation Agency was created and took over the CAA’s functions. It also took from the CAB the job of promulgating safety regulation and coordinating military and civilian air traffic control. The CAB retained the responsibilities of economic regulation and accident investigation, but not for long. A midair collision on December 18, 1960, between a United Air Lines and a TWA flight in the skies above New York killed 135 people, including 8 on the ground, and intensified the public demand for improvements.

The 1960’s brought the radar-based air traffic control (ATC) system, with its banks of green screens that enabled controllers to monitor the nation’s airports and airways. In 1966, the Department of Transportation (DOT) was formed to coordinate the regulation of all modes of transportation within one department. The Federal Aviation Agency, now operating under the DOT, became the Federal Aviation Administration. The accident investigation function was removed from the CAB’s jurisdiction, and an independent accident investigation organization, called the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), was established. Although the FAA may assist in aircraft accident investigation, the NTSB remains primarily responsible.

Reacting to Tragedies

Unfortunately, in the coming decades, air tragedies continued to direct the course of the FAA. Aircraft hijackings in the 1960’s caused the FAA to institute security regulations and requirements, followed years later with more-stringent requirements following more deadly and catastrophic aircraft crimes, such as the terrorist bombing of Pan American Flight 103 in 1988. Plastic explosives were hidden in a personal tape recorder, which was loaded in Frankfurt, Germany, into the baggage compartment of the doomed plane. There was no passenger on board the flight to accompany the baggage.

Major domestic security changes were ordered after a tragic episode in 1987, in which a fired Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) employee boarded the airliner with his old employee badge and, after takeoff, shot his former boss, a passenger. The killer then shot the aircraft’s pilots, and the plane plunged to earth, killing all on board.

The most shocking tragedy occurred on September 11, 2001, when teams of terrorists hijacked four commercial jets. Two 767’s out of Boston’s Logan Airport, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Air Lines Flight 175, were intentionally crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing both buildings to collapse. The third plane, American Flight 77, a 757 out of Washington’s Dulles Airport, was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane, United Flight 93 out of Newark, New Jersey, crashed in a field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when passengers stormed the cockpit of the 757. In total, more than 5,500 people, from the planes and on the ground, were killed. The hijackers smuggled box cutters on board the aircraft, gained access to the cockpits, either killed or incapacitated the flight crews, switched off the transponders, and took over the controls. Two of the terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, were on a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) watchlist but were allowed to purchase tickets.

Eventually, the NTSB would discover the trend that the most frequent among many causes of accidents was the failure of the FAA to act to avert catastrophe.

Airline Deregulation

In 1978, the FAA faced another problem, when the airline economic deregulation unwittingly dealt airline safety an insidious blow. Bowing to intense political pressure, the federal government hastily freed airlines from almost all economic regulation. The debate over the wisdom of deregulation has continued ever since. The CAB was abolished, and with the elimination of economic regulation, a substantial part of airline regulation disappeared. The government no longer regulated the routes that airlines could fly or how frequently they could fly them. The airlines could set fares and invent combinations of arbitrary fare restrictions. The airlines could price their tickets below the cost of buying, flying, and maintaining the planes. As the U.S. airline fleet aged, cash-strapped carriers delayed maintenance, cut corners on safety, and, in some cases, even falsified maintenance records.

The FAA, however, did not change the way it policed the airlines. In the years following deregulation, dozens of upstart carriers entered the airline business. Many of these companies operated with meager financing, old planes, little experience, and low-paid employees. They planned to meet vital functions, such as maintenance and safety, by contracting with the lowest bidders. Such airlines came to be called virtual airlines, and almost all of them went bankrupt or otherwise ceased to exist within a few years.

One such carrier, ValuJet, caused the biggest FAA crisis in history, but also caused the FAA to increase by 267 percent its remedial action. On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet flight crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 on board. The American public’s faith in the FAA was shaken when both the FAA administrator and the DOT secretary of transportation stood at the crash site and, before any investigation, on national television pronounced the airline safe. The airline was not safe, however, and days later, ValuJet was grounded for safety violations. A document produced from within the FAA showed that FAA inspectors had recommended grounding ValuJet months before the crash.

Congressional and Senate hearings probed the problems within the FAA, and the FAA admitted to Congress that with the advent of virtual airlines, its ability to inspect and oversee the airlines had been significantly hampered. The dual mission of the FAA, both to promote aviation and to regulate safety, inherited decades before from its predecessors within the Commerce Department, was an obvious inherent conflict. The FAA was tasked by Congress to set about improving its own safety record, as well as that of the U.S. airlines.

Air Traffic Control and Crowded Skies

By the 1980’s, the nationwide air traffic control system of banks of blinking green screens and paper strips tracking thousands of planes across the skies had become antiquated. Congressional hearings examined the problem of demand for air travel exceeding the ability of the old air traffic control system to handle the traffic. The FAA’s initial efforts to replace the system had failed by the mid-1990’s. The first replacement program was woefully behind schedule and well over budget. The FAA, ordered by Congress to start over, began phasing in over many years parts of the new air traffic control replacement system. The overall completion date was targeted for 2015, with most of the system projected to be finished by 2008. The completed system allows for completely computerized and automated air traffic control aided by global positioning system (GPS) satellites. The aircraft itself will be able to communicate with the air traffic control system. Should something happen to the pilots, a verbal or electronic command from the aircraft’s home base or air traffic control can tell it to return to its home airport or to another designated airport.

Under the new system, pilots will finally be able to legally and safely choose paths across the sky, without bonfires or beacons, without cumbersome air routes dictated by green blinking radar screens and strips of paper, and without needless tragedy that imperils pilots, passengers, and even pedestrians on the ground below.


  • Nader, Ralph, and Wesley Smith. Collision Course. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books, 1994. A frank discussion of the problems of aviation regulation and ideas about how to fix them.
  • Nance, John. Blind Trust. New York: Morrow, 1986. A commercial airline pilot’s view of the problems caused by the deregulation of the airline industry and the FAA’s role in aviation safety enforcement.
  • Schiavo, Mary. Flying Blind, Flying Safe. New York: Avon, 1998. The personal story of the DOT inspector general’s investigation of the FAA, the surprising problems she found, and the federal government’s even more surprising reaction.

Accident investigation

Air carriers

Air traffic control

Airline Deregulation Act

Airline industry, U.S.


Commercial flight


National Transportation Safety Board

Pilots and copilots

Safety issues

Training and education

FAA Regions

Source: Federal Aviation Administration.